An interesting document by Michael W. Newman, current president of the Texas district of the LCMS, appeared in Lutheran Mission Matters 28:2 (Nov. 2019): “Next Steps for LCMS Multiplication: Two Actions to Reignite a Gospel Movement.” The abstract is promising: “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) experienced two robust periods of growth in its history. During the late 1800s and from the late 1930s to the early 1960s, the LCMS saw significant expansion. Two common threads of ministry action during these seasons of growth were the planting of new churches and the development of new Lutheran church bodies around the world. This essay will examine the history of LCMS Kingdom multiplication and propose two solutions consistent with our history that will address our current decline. The solutions will help energize efforts to bring the important message of grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone to an increasingly secularized and searching culture, and to new generations as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of the LCMS in 2047.”
A brief perusal seemed to yield some very interesting key phrases: “Be fruitful and multiply”; “Lethargy in multiplication”; “address population growth and anticipated church closures”; “Kingdom increase and multiplication are also God’s gift”; “the LCMS has been fading in increase and multiplication for nearly four decades. This is in stark contrast to the church multiplication track record of the LCMS during most of its history”; “In the sixty years that followed, congregations continued to be fruitful and multiply at a healthy rate.” Color me very intrigued at this point.
This reminds me of the Amish, called “the fastest-growing faith group in US” in 2012. Despite the association with an anti-technology stance, they are dominating, relatively speaking, in church growth: “Amish Projected To Overtake The Current US Population In 215 Years, If Growth Rates Continue” (Daily Caller, July 31, 2019). In the same article it states: “Over the past 100 years, the Amish population has doubled every 19.63 years on average.” The reason for this multiplication is simple: actual physical multiplication (more children), combined with a strong indoctrination of their future adults in their traditional teaching and values. This is due “in part to their opposition to modern birth control and the value they place on fertility, [so that] the Amish are one of the fastest growing populations in the world.” Of course, fertility is a modern abstraction. What is meant is that the Amish place a large value on children, the future generation of the church on earth. So what about the LCMS, and just about every other American church?
The numbers don’t lie: “On average, the Amish have families larger than the typical American family, which has 1.9 children. Demographers estimate the Amish have an average of 6-7 children per family,” while some communities “average 9 children per family.” But all the children born in the world do not mean future Christians unless they are taught Christ’s Word. We learn to be disciples first in the home, from our fathers and mothers. Without discipline, and an authoritative example, there is little actual life-long discipleship. Newman seems to be on the right track: “This speaks to a major challenge to the mission of the church: for all the evangelistic initiatives, for all the church planting, for all the populist fears of immigration diluting the Christian population’s majority, the biggest challenge to the Christian church is our inability to disciple our own children and help them transition from childhood faith to adult belief.” This is the problem, isn’t it? Look at the current people in church pews. There is a lost generation or two, because children were not raised to be Christian in the same way as their parents and grandparents. Perhaps the younger generation saw all churches as equal, embracing the soft, easy false doctrine of non-confessing churches, if they go to church at all.
But as I read Newman’s article more carefully, I quickly saw that this is not the Amish plan—that actually does work—but just another man-made scheme of human methodology. “Multiplication” and “be fruitful and multiply” are ripped from their biblical context and given a completely different meaning, signifying new church plants, instead of children—that is, actual new life. What we have is a poor, secularized copy of the demonstrably successful Amish plan.
Worldly methodology, techniques, and business principles have replaced the use of God’s Word in the home with one’s family. Missions is sexy and exciting to the modern evangelical, but the basic duty of being husband and wife, mother and father, son and daughter, is so often put on the back-burner. The results will not be different. Without actually raising the next generation of Christians in the home to truly be Lutheran in life and confession, all man’s schemes, devices, and programs will be futile.
Newman seems to value new congregational plants above all else, redefining very clear biblical language about children: “planting churches is essential to seeing new people receive the gift of new life in Christ.’’ But churches, by themselves, do nothing if the Word is not proclaimed to actual people. One is led to wonder whether this activity of the Spirit can happen in “old churches’’? But Newman is not longing for the good old days of an increasing population, when the LCMS was actually growing, not declining—a real, physical multiplication of people. This is a strange use of God’s words in church, quite against their biblical context.
A real “lethargy in multiplication, however, has gripped the American church.’’ Too true, but not in the way Newman defines it. We worship convenience, wealth, career, independence, and growth, without sacrifice. We want Christians, but are not willing to bear and raise them ourselves. We want the world to do it, but then hope to convert them quickly and painlessly. But this does not happen usually, because living as, and raising, a Christian is an all-encompassing task, just the same as raising a child. The hard truth is that there are no churches without people. Children have to born and taught, which we should not need a lesson on. This is God’s multiplication.
It is good to open new churches? Yes, of course, but not if we have to close down old churches, with actual Christians in them, to make it look like we are doing something new. Acts 12:24 recounts: “But the word of God increased and multiplied.” God’s Word does the work and gives the growth, not our techniques. New churches with new methods and explicit target demographics does not make the Word more effective.
If new churches simply bow to the culture, they are like saltless salt. Many worship the idea of growth, but actual internal growth is too difficult, so sheep stealing, or bending to the ideals of secular society replace preaching the Gospel. Many new churches are looked at with suspicion by doctrinally faithful pastors, because there is an implicit assumption that if you are new, you will do things a new way.
Unlike in the former days of Lutheranism, this plan of Newman is not about forming daughter churches, which branch off from a mother church after internal growth, and the forming preaching stations, but the result of strategic district planning and worldly studies.
But the question is: Do we really trust the Word of God to grow the Church, or do we think our selfish activity, not commanded by God, is more important? Newman is right, though sadly unintentionally: “one of God’s intended outcomes of marriage was the procreation of ‘godly offspring.’ Being fruitful and multiplying is wrapped in God’s love for all people and His desire to receive disciples into His eternal Kingdom.” How many pastors are preaching God’s will to married couples, who are directly responsible for the raising the next generation of Christians? “Being fruitful and multiplying” is a holy task, but not an easy one. It requires self-sacrifice and hard work. It is not an administrative move or intricate plan to reorganize churches.
Follow God’s will and live according to His Word in your vocation as man and woman. Leave the results to God. There is a “season of fatigue and decline in the LCMS,” but it is much more than that, it is found throughout culture and society. This is most directly seen in the value we place on children and their potential hearing of the Word of Christ in His church.
There is a real problem: “481 congregations and mission stations closed between 2009–2018, according to LCMS Rosters and Statistics.” But Newman seems oblivious to the real issue: “Is it time to send missionaries to launch a new church body in the US? Is it the right season in history to give birth to a new biblical and confessional voice that can speak Christ-centered, grace-focused, sacramental-rejoicing, and Scripture-founded words into the spiritual conversation happening in America today? I’m not talking about division; I’m talking about multiplication. Might the launch of a new movement, rooted in and founded upon Reformation theology, be just what is needed to reinvigorate the multiplication legacy of the LCMS—and the Lutheran Church in Western civilization?”
Newman advocates for another church—-faithful, yes—“but unencumbered by European educational structures and Western accreditation.” What does this mean? To redo from scratch how we practice church and what it looks like. It makes the gross error that our current style, forms, and traditions are real impediments to the Gospel and faithfulness. This is modern-style “church growth” on steroids, not actual growth leading to more people to hear the Gospel. We are asked to “Picture it:” “A younger, more diverse and nimble church” with “forms and ceremonies …. speak[ing] to an emerging generation.’’ Of course closed communion, confessing the body and blood of Christ in His Supper, infant baptismal regeneration, and telling people children are not a “choice” cannot be a part of this “new” church—those things are offensive and do not give the illusion that man does the multiplication.
Thankfully, to grow the church the pure Word of Christ is enough. But this cannot be done without real work, done by parents over decades. There is no quick fix—just look at the Amish and what has steadily worked in the failed modern era of miracle church cures!
God wants you to be faithful where He has placed you and consider what you can control: the Word of God in your own family and congregation. This does not require disruption and grandiose plans of re-imaging denominations, but patience and true love of God’s will, including the children He so graciously gives. We need to tell our wise leaders to simply be faithful: “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and leave them alone! For if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop them. Perhaps you might even be found to be fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39). God’s plan is still the best, though not the easiest—just consider the Amish and their radical, cutting edge plan for multiplication. —ed.