“I don’t really push them on it too hard because, after the wedding, I want them to trust me.”
A few years ago, I overheard a fellow LCMS clergyman make this statement when discussing the question of whether pastors should officiate marriages for cohabitating couples. Should we require such couples to move out before they formally become man and wife? Should we require that those who have already joined themselves as one flesh rush to the justice of the peace before having their wedding ceremony in the church? Should we require those who are in a state of sin to repent before clothing them in God’s blessing?
“No,” the pastor would have told you. Such harsh measures would have pushed them away. In order to ease them into accepting God’s Word, first he had to develop a trusting relationship with them. In a sense, this approach to premarital cohabitation is the Church Growth Movement boiled down to its essence.
While it can be a challenge to define theological trends and fads in real time, theological opiners tend to describe the Church Growth Movement as a congregation-growing methodology rooted in appeals to statistical trends, analytics, and social research. Crunch the numbers and you’ll identify what is hindering people from worshiping with you and fellowshipping with you. Make whatever changes the numbers dictate. Change your liturgy, your preaching, your focus, maybe even your name, and the kingdom will grow. Discipleship by data.
On the surface, this is how CGM advocates would describe their movement. I would argue, however, that CGM is not so much a corporate methodology as it is a personal ideology. It’s the belief that disciples are best made by filtering religion through relationships. People need Jesus, but they need you to make Jesus comprehensible and accessible. That’s why you push all the trappings of formality aside in your services to make more room for your approachability. People need God’s Word, but they need you to make them feel comfortable with it. That’s why they need your tender and affable personality to shine in your preaching. People need to repent, but they need someone they trust to issue that call to repent. That’s why they need you to spend five years treating them like an abused dog that needs to be won over before you can tell them that they are in immediate danger of hellfire. People need the truth. Eventually. But until you’ve sufficiently earned their trust, it’s best for you to avoid speaking that truth too boisterously.
For the last half century, the Church Growth Movement has used this approach to successfully avoid coming into full blown conflict with the sexual revolution. What do you do when a woman divorces her husband without scriptural grounds? Well, she’ll just leave if you place her under discipline, and then word will get around that you’re a harsh and unloving pastor and your congregation will stop growing. So just keep quiet about it. Talk with her behind the scenes, be gentle with her, and maybe in time she’ll see what she did wrong. Until then, it won’t really cause a scandal. You have a big church. Most people don’t know her and won’t know what she’s done. It’s not like divorced people look divorced.
And it’s not like you can tell a young woman is living with her boyfriend by looking at her. And it’s not like you can tell a man is going to give a toast at his lesbian daughter’s wedding by looking at him.
Problem is, a teenage girl who identifies as transgender looks transgender when she adopts a masculine haircut and attire. She sounds transgender when she asks to be referred to as her self-chosen boy name. By her mere appearance, she causes a scandal in the congregation. If she kneels at the altar to receive the sacrament while dressed in a way that indicates defiance of God, this is as much a problem as two men holding hands as they approach the communion rail. In such circumstances, you don’t have the luxury of patience. You don’t even have the appearance of the luxury of patience. Such an act demands an immediate response from the shepherd so that the sheep may know how to view the matter rightly.
A woman who identifies as a man is not male, and we cannot confess her to be so even if our desire is to be gentle and hospitable. When she asks, at the beginning of the conversation, that you use a masculine name or masculine pronouns in referring to her, she is asking you to share her false ontology, to deny God as her creator, and to crown her as the author of her own maleness or femaleness or something-inbetween-ness. The only faithful answer a Christian can give to such a request is an immediate “no.” Just as we can’t agree with our Muslim friend that Jesus was merely a prophet of Allah for a time before we confess His divinity, we can’t patiently deny God’s lordship over Becca until she trusts us enough to hear that she’s not really Bryce. Lies cannot prepare anyone for the truth.
Therefore, in a sense, the transgenderism craze has done the Church a great favor. It has made clear something that has always been the case. The reason congregations don’t grow is because people don’t believe. Certainly, unfriendly congregations are unlikely to bring in new members and crumbling buildings that smell like mold and remain empty six days a week are unlikely to attract converts. But on a fundamental level, the reason congregations don’t grow is because people love their sins, hate their Savior, and are not hearing a clear confession that will call them out of the darkness and into God’s marvelous light.
The only solution to that problem is the Word of God. Not the Word filtered through our winsomeness or gentleness. Not the Word applied once we in our infinite wisdom have determined the time is finally right for us to speak it to those whose trust we’ve won. The Word applied with haste. The Law preached in all its sternness. The Gospel preached in all its sweetness. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
Likewise, the transgenderism craze has laid bare the failure of the church growth movement. Following the data, you did what people asked and got rid of your stuffy liturgy, your off-putting judginess, and your unreasonable catechetical expectations. You offered services on different days so they could have their kids worshiping at the altar of sports on Sunday morning. You boasted a 3,000 to 1 ratio of members joined to members excommunicated. What did that yield? Not a crop of disciples ready to run the race and endure the attacks of the devil with faithfulness, but a spiritual culture where churchgoers and non-churchgoers alike expect you to fold whenever they take the next step in the sexual revolution. You ignored their divorces. You ignored their premarital cohabitation and intentional childlessness. You ignored the rainbow flags they flew on their Facebook avatars during Gay Pride month. You’ll affirm their trans kids.
Transgenderism has called the Church Growth Movement’s bluff. Therefore, it’s time for the Church Growth Movement to fold, to admit that it has always been more concerned with earthly growth than eternal faithfulness. Likewise, it’s time for all of us to turn from the self-idolatrous thinking that has fueled the Church Growth Movement. It’s time to repent of trusting our own kindness and gentleness and patience and winsomeness to kindle faith where the Word of God alone was supposedly insufficient. It’s time to decrease so that Christ can increase. It’s time to start speaking the Word with the boldness of the prophets instead of viewing our own personalities as the means of grace that will much more effectively bring people to faith.
A young woman lost in the darkness about what it means to be male and female doesn’t need Pastor First Name to practice “pronoun hospitality” to prevent her from crying. She needs an actual shepherd to tell her she needs to cry out for the mercy of Christ, who will always come to her rescue. So it is for all people when they are caught up in divorce or fornication or any other sin. They don’t need Faithwindz Community Grace Center to make space for them while they faithwalk together. They need an actual church to speak God’s actual Word, sharper than any two-edged sword, that they may be pierced with God’s holy Law and healed with His eternal Gospel.