What’s the Deal with the Church Growth Movement, Part 2

As I continue my series about the Church Growth Movement I want to look at three ways the Church Growth Movement evolved. As I said previously, it is easy to take issue with something that was birthed in the 60’s (Volkswagen vans and the Beatles were not all bad). But the misapplication of the principles always happens when you get beyond the headwaters of a movement. Although the Church Growth Movement was well intended, all the results have not been good. Here are three ways the Church Growth Movement evolved that was not helpful to mission of God in North America.

1) Americanization of the Movement – When the movement became americanized, there were consequences. Some Church Growth leaders sounded like sales consultants. Some reminded me of greatest pitchman in history, the late Billy Mayes. I see him swinging his arms passionately, in his blue denim shirt, pitching the power of Oxiclean. A money back guarantee was included, of course. Some (certainly not all) Church Growth leaders, as with good pitchmen, address a pain point. The pain point that birthed the Church Growth Movement was “Are you tired of the lack of results at growing your church in spite of your best efforts?” The answer, it appears, was better plans.

To be honest, we Americans are guilty of turning anything good into a business. The Church Growth movement is no exception. In The Church Between Gospel and Culture, Richard Halverson wrote, “When the Greeks got the gospel they turned it into a philosophy, when the Romans got it they turned it into a government, when the Europeans got it they turned it into a culture; when the Americans got it they turned it into an enterprise.” An unfortunate by-product of the Church Growth Movement is that growing God’s church can be as simple as 1-2-3 with guaranteed results. I call it methodological mania. Some in the Church Growth Movement lost their way when they became more driven by methodological mania than by a central focus on mission.

2) A New Kind of Mission Station Mentality – I have heard the church called a mission outpost in a positive sense. I agree the church is a mission outpost if you are describing a place from which missionaries are sent across the street and around the world. But McGavran took issue with an approach to the mission of God that resulted in missionary isolationism. Another unintended dark side of Church Growth is that it produced another mission station mentality. Our best hopes focused on making the church so attractive that even a lost person would want to come inside to discover Jesus. What happened however, for the most part, is that we made the church become a great place to be for Christians or a “warehousing effect.” With all our best intentions we must guard against, yes, that’s right, guard against making our church “the place to be.” We must avoid “come and see” mentality that tempts our people to “do life” at church 24/7.

The church can never become the place where I live, work, and play. My neighborhood is where real people live. I am not sent by God to a church facility, ever how convenient and impressive it may be. I am sent away from the church gathered to my tribe and household with the Good News of the Gospel. That is where transformational movements take place that engage every man, woman, and child with the Gospel. So, too many in church growth focused on the barn, rather than how we might live on mission among the white fields. When focusing too much on the barn, we sometimes forget that the wheat will not harvest itself.

3) A Sociological Phenomenon – Much of Church Growth theory was based on sociology– and sociology is not a bad thing. We use sociology in missiology because we can understand social structures. For example, in missiology, we understand the sociological realities of the people are are trying to reach. We know, for example, that some cultures see family in a certain way and we take that into account.

Thus, the focus became (at times) focused on using sociological tools and realities to reach people. As such, evangelism was mistakenly depersonalized by making it the responsibility of the institutional church as it engaged its society rather than individuals who were reaching and serving others. Bricks, mortar, and programs do not take away my responsibility to be a living epistle in my neighborhood through word and deed. The end result was, as I see it, too much sociology and not enough focus on the mission itself.

Now, it is important to note that all three of these problems were caused, in some ways, by reactions to the issues before them. For example, I believe that the missio dei movement (1950-1970) gave birth to the Church Growth Movement (1960-1990) which gave birth a the missional church movement (1990-today). Though I do not have the space here to unpack that all here, I think it is important to note that most of the Church Growth proponents, were asking questions about how best to reach more people for Jesus when many in the mainline traditions had lost that focus (when the missio dei became so overwhelmingly focused on societal transformation– see an earlier blog post here).

In my next post I will conclude my series by telling you how the Kingdom of God has gained because of the Church Growth Movement.

Read Part 1 of this series here; read Part 3 here.

Read more from Ed here.

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Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer

Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Previously, he served as Executive Director of LifeWay Research. Stetzer is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He serves as interim pastor of Moody Church in Chicago.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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