Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession?

Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession: The Mission of the Holy Christian Church. By Rev. Lucas V. Woodford. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012. Click here.


Rev. Lucas Woodford is a pastor on a quest for a strategic plan faithful to the Scriptures and Catechism.Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession: The Mission of the Holy Christian Church is his travel log. He wallows through the marsh of post-modernism, traverses the crags of the church growth movement, and winds his ways through the twisting streets of the emergent movement, all to end up at the Apostle’s Creed and the great joy and certainty of the Lord’s gifts.

Judging by the proliferation of texts about church structure, vision, ministry paradigms, pastoral leadership, evangelism strategies, and “doing church” or (with more conviction and less sense) “being church,” Woodford is apparently not the only person looking for such a plan. But Woodford starts and ends in a different place from all the others: the creed. “The church has always been accompanied by creeds” (16), and always should be. Exploring the life of the church through the lens of the Apostles’ Creed will “radically celebrate the centrality of the Gospel in the life of the church” (9, 133).

This is a simple and beautiful truth, but it is an assaulted truth, and Woodford must defend it—a task he accomplishes with humility, kindness, gentleness, and a large dose of patience. He is circumspect in his critique. His book is a personal journey, which softens the criticism he brings. He pleads for a conversation, for a friendly and gentle conversation about the ideologies that tear at the church’s unity. In the end Woodford asks only “that we maintain our theological integrity while we are reaching out to the lost” (7).

It turns out, though, that “reaching for the lost” seems to be an excuse to abandon theological integrity, a development Woodford laments and exposes. This anti-doctrine doctrine is smuggled into the church through clichéd conversations of “leadership,” “missionalism,” and the grandest cliché of all that gives birth to all others: “Great Commission.” Imagine it: “evangelism” is the new legalism! A more monstrous confusion of Law and Gospel would be difficult to conceive. But these clichés strut around with a tyrannical rigor that makes even the most stalwart confessor of the Gospel cringe at the accusation of “not loving the lost.” The result is that the theological conversation of the church is minimized or mocked to make room for “evangelism.”

Woodford, with his characteristic kindness, notes, “[T]he recent Great Commission emphasis has a reoccurring tendency to lose sight of the Gospel itself and subsequently create significant confusion within the church,” (45). The Great Commission’s “appeal is portrayed as profound. But given the confusion that exists in the church today it is debatable on just how effective the Great Commission as motto actually really is. In fact, there is evidence that there have been adverse effects from using it as a motto for the church,” (54).

But what is the love of God if it not the death of Jesus on the cross? And what is the death of Jesus on the cross if it is not a promise brought to our conscience by the Holy Spirit in the Word? And what is this promise if not a doctrine? “[T]heological dialogue is not anti-evangelism,” (35).

“[T]he North American church culture has been de-doctrinized. In short, the historic teachings (doctrine) that have guided the church and her mission are slowly being stripped away,” (26). Woodford’s analysis is generous; the church is theologically stripped nude. But rather than lament this nakedness, the church glories in her shame: “This will help attract people.”

Marketing is the tool to accomplish this attraction. Woodford trots out the embarrassing Evangelical Style, Lutheran Substance: “For years I taught management in several business schools. I cannot help but look at evangelism as a marketing task. Using that vocabulary, what is the packaging that delivers a church’s substantive product most effectively? The answer comes from figuring out the first question: What are the consumers looking for; what are their felt needs?” (100). Lord have mercy! St. Paul outlines the felt needs of the unbeliever in Philippians, “whose god is their belly, who glory in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things” (Phil 3:19).

Woodford patiently brings witnesses to testify against the insanity of market-driven Christianity: Philip Kenneson and James Street’s Selling Out the Church, Gary Giles’ This Little Church Went to Market, Gregory Pritchard’s Willow Creek Seeker Services: Evaluating a New Way of Doing Church. Romans, though, is enough. We should recognize that “Seeker-sensitivity” will fail because there is no such thing as a “Seeker.” “There is on one who seeks after God,” (Rom 3:11). Unbelievers are unbelievers because they do not believe in God, not because the church is dorky. Conversion is the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word, not result of a well-packed meaningful product.

In this place Woodford brought forth words that still astonish and trouble me, such as this quotation from the Everychurch Guide to Growth, giving instructions for church planters:

“Start the church as a rancher, not as a shepherd . . . It is hard for some to picture how they can start a brand new church and not shepherd all the people, but they can, as long as there is mutual agreement that this is the way it is done in our church. This mutual agreement requires three basic ingredients: (1) the pastor does not visit the hospital, (2) the pastor does not call on members in their homes, and (3) the pastor does no personal counseling.” (Towns, Wagner, and Rainer, The Everychurch Guide to Growth, 46, quoted by Woodford, 106)

“The pastor does not pastor.” How can he when there’s leading and visioning and missioning to do? This destruction of the order of the church is accomplished by making evangelism into an emergency. Emergencies require, by definition, the suspension of God’s ordering of the world. Church Growth makes evangelism into an emergency, and then re-orders the church according to this crisis. “When the urgency of seeking and saving the lost is repeatedly cast as the sole purpose of the church, it seems that healthy theological discernment and discourse is often trumped by that urgency,” (99). In an emergency or a crisis the Lord’s ordering is turned on its head: institutions become movements, creeds become mission and vision statements, ministers become leaders, the Lutheran church becomes Lutheranism, and every man becomes a minister, an evangelist without the evangel.

The Church Growth Movement tempts the church with the idolatry of size: bigger is better. The goal is growth. Never mind that the Scriptures explicitly teach that the growth of the church is the Lord’s business and not ours. “God gave the increase,” (1 Cor 3:6). “Bigger is better” does destruction in two directions. First, the big churches understand their success as the Lord’s blessings, and any criticism of their teaching or their methods is an attack on the Lord Himself. Second, everything the small church does is questioned and criticized, and there is a constant pressure to abandon theological integrity for the sake of growth. Pride and despair—those are the two options the Church Growth Movement offers, the two options we have when we live life without the Gospel. “As long as they hear the bare preaching of the Law, and nothing concerning Christ, and therefore do not learn from the Law to perceive their sins aright, [they] either become presumptuous hypocrites (who swell with the opinion of their own righteousness) as the Pharisees, or despair like Judas,” (FC Ep V, 7).

Of course, the Church Growth Movement’s “attractional model” has also been critiqued. Post-modernism and its affinity towards deconstruction of language and “incredulity toward metanarratives” (78) naturally resists the glitter of big-box revival-concert seeker-services, replacing it with a gathering of authentic and missional Jesus-followers living a kingdom ethic. This is the emergent church: “there is a recovery of the church as an authentic and organic body of believers on a mission, not just a business appealing to the market” (114).

The emergent church is like the boy who grows up disillusioned with the suburbs and moves into the city with his guitar and stops washing his hair. “What began as a counter movement to the antecedent church growth mentality has now seemingly warped into an opposite of sorts coupled with a Gnostic flair” (128).

“As well-intentioned as each respective movement may be, a distracting and distorting effect on the clarity and centrality of the Gospel inherent in them has been demonstrated” (129). The Gospel, in fact, has been supplanted as the article upon with the church stands or falls. Both the Church Growth Movement and the Emergent Church Movement share in the ironic and destructive narcissism that marks all modern theology: the church itself becomes the article upon which the church stands or falls.

Try as she might to look outside herself, concern herself with the unbelievers and the plight of the godless, the modern theologian never seems able to see past his own nose. “What is the church?” is the first and last question of theological inquiry, creating a kind of “churchism,” an obsession with the Kingdom of God that forgets the “of God.”

What’s worse, the “churchists” answer the question “What is the church?” by looking at what the church does. It almost can’t help from obsessing over works and deeds instead of doctrine. Doctrine, after all, is a confession of what God does, and not about what we are doing. The Church Growth Movement knows that the church grows. The Emergent Church Movement is still talking about what the church does, but holds that it probably manifests the “radical kingdom ethic” of Jesus. Either way, it’s all law and no Gospel; all us and no Jesus.

The Scriptures point us the other direction: “How was the church created?” “What has God done?” This is theology. This is institution. The church is God’s work, and that means that the church is something confessed long before it is something “lived.”

Woodford sends us this direction: to the confession of God’s work and word, to the creed, and especially to the Third Article on the Holy Spirit. “The distinct nature of the third article not only reaffirms the church in its boldness, but it also offers a paradigm that is readily available for engaging a postmodern world with a word that not only carries meaning and purpose but actually gives meaning and purpose” (141).

In the third article we confess the work of the Holy Spirit, and we hold up the faith-creating order established by God Himself: The Holy Spirit, working in the word preached, in baptism and the Lord’s Supper administered, with righteousness declared and forgiveness distributed. Woodford brings the clarity and simplicity of the creed to bear on almost every aspect of the church’s life—mercy, vocation, the office of pastor, worship, education, and evangelism—showing under each topic that a careful (in every sense of the word) articulation of the work of the Holy Spirit is the church’s mission. Or, better, that the confession of the creed is the Holy Spirit’s work.

Just as we do not, by our own reason and strength, believe the Gospel, neither is the Gospel, by our own reason or strength, preached. The Holy Spirit gives the gifts both of hearing and speaking, believing and confessing the Gospel promise. “Where the Word is, there the Holy Spirit is, making believers, gathering worshipers, and enlightening the whole Christian church on earth” (193).

Woodford’s book is about the church, but it is also a book helping us see the danger of only talking and thinking about the church. In that way it is a book about Christ, about His love and His work, His Gospel and His church. With eyes fixed on Jesus, the church, with all her sins and struggles, becomes much less of a problem. All questions of strategies and programs are dull for a conscience made clean by the blood of Jesus, echoing with the heavenly verdict of sin forgiven. With the clarity of the Gospel all the uncertainties of this world are really no trouble at all.

“I challenge the North American church to reclaim the radical nature of this Gospel proclamation, trusting that the Word is powerful and effective. I challenge the North American church to rejoice in the royal priesthood. If it does, perhaps we’ll be privileged to witness the distinct growth of God’s kingdom here in time, and then, when time has ended, in all of its fullness there in eternity” (193). With this book the challenge is well framed, and the conversation is well begun.

Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller

Aurora, Colorado