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How to plunder Egypt... ::

What can we – and should we – be learning form the gurus of the church growth movement?
Source: Perspective Vo5 No4 ©Perspective 1999

Without building a Golden Calf

In his work as a researcher with the Australian Church Life Survey, STEVE CREE has had plenty of opportunities to see what works, and to analyse the popular Church Growth Movement. What can we – and should we – be learning form the gurus of the movement?

Escaping the hellfire and smoke surrounding his pulpit, the Rev. Tommy Barnett waves goodbye. With a hearty “Hallelujah!”, he soars straight toward heaven and out of sight. The 6500-strong congregation at Phoenix First Assembly gasp at the sudden flight of their pastor, the stunning climax of a technological extravaganza involving a $500,000 special-effects system, 200 member choir and 25-piece orchestra1. It was the best of church growth. It was the worst of church growth…

Bishop Bean-counters & Pundit-priests

A new breed of church professionals have emerged. They are trend-spotters, number-crunchers and pundit-priests. Their language: ‘Dynamic-worship’. ‘Niche-marketing’. ‘Resource- utilisation’. ‘Audience-driven’. ‘Seeker-sensitive’. ‘User-friendly’. ‘Business of ministry’. ‘Full-service churches’. Their world: management, marketing and megachurches. Their tools: a myriad of dazzling modern insights and impressive technologies. Their claim: the managerial, therapeutic, technological, and information revolutions offer the 20th century church opportunities for growth that dwarf even those afforded by Roman roads in the 1st century and printing presses in the 16th. This is the church growth movement (CGM): an army of ecclesiastical fortune-tellers at the ready with sure recipes for growth.

It’s easy to be cynical about the CGM… of the minister who declares “I want the biggest church I can think of”2; the church-attender who observes “instead of me fitting a religion I found a religion to fit me”. We are cynical of the need-driven religious supermarket that beckons all to a mix-and-match salad-bar spirituality; and the Coca-Cola marketing-guru turned church promoter who explains that “God performed a miracle on the day of Pentecost…they didn’t have the benefits of buttons and media, so God had to do a little supernatural work there”3. Cynicism is perhaps the mildest of responses to such transparent idolatry and brazen parading of modern golden calves.

How cynical are we prepared to be?

The danger however, is that our cynicism may be too selective. We may avoid scrutiny of our own strategies: rejecting the methods of the CGM… and sanctifying our own. We may even replace a gross theology of glory with a comforting theology of decline. It is more comforting to see ourselves as the tiny minority suffering for our beliefs than to consider the possibility that we are employing inadequate evangelistic strategies. It is consoling to equate decline with faithfulness, declaring it to be the will of God. We turn from the glory of bigness to the glory of littleness: decline is the sure sign that we are God’s chosen people… after all, congregations only grow when something heretical is taking place…

Is pragmatism a dirty word?

Should we cry “preach the gospel” and decry methods and techniques? Can we agree that:

“God’s mighty work of salvation progresses independently of system. Robes, liturgy, hymnody and the like, play no part whatsoever in the realisation of a Kingdom…to assume how we do church somehow impinges, either negatively or positively, on the effectiveness of the gospel, is surely heresy…[our] liturgical approach may not be as popular today, but then Kingdom business has nothing to do with popularity….long ago we evangelicals discovered that the Kingdom of God is realised through the preaching and teaching of the Word of God rather than human strategies or effort or ‘works’”4?

These words are not merely wrong for their false dichotomy, docetic heresy, and failure to grasp biblical pragmatism (see Acts 6, Ex 18, 1 Cor 14:22ff), but for seeking to combat idolatry with idolatry. Whether driven by a sense of failure or defensive pride, they represent a form of idolatry just as insidious, if more subtle, than the excesses of the CGM: uncritically baptising certain human inventions; and arrogantly assuming an equation of our unproductivity with God’s sovereignty. We abuse the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation if we use it to wall off our responsibility in mission. Further, any right understanding of ‘remnant’ – of God’s true people – should drive us to self-criticism rather than self-satisfaction. Tradition presents as great a danger of idolatry as innovation. A religious museum is as unacceptable as a religious supermarket. If we understand the incarnation of Jesus Christ at all, we will be keenly and humbly open to considering how to contextualise our presentation of his gospel.

Paul the Pragmatist
A key passage in CG literature is 1 Cor 9:19-23, where Paul outlines his missionary strategy of becoming “all things to all men”. Unfortunately, just as these words have become a synonym for compromise in common parlance, they are often similarly misused by the CGM – justifying a concession to rather than an engagement with culture. The motive of Paul’s pragmatism, “so that by all possible means I might save some” is often ignored. Despite the frequent lopsided application of Paul’s words, however, 1 Cor 9:19-23 is an ideal starting point for a biblical appraisal of the CGM. Understood correctly, Paul’s words simultaneously provide positively, the mandate, and negatively, the control for our engagement with the CGM.

1 Cor 9:19-23 is a special form of the critical tension inherent in Christian discipleship – of being in the world but not of it – living, in Augustine’s words, as “resident aliens”. Paul’s policy is one of controlled pragmatism or principled relativism. His ministry is certainly open to the charge of relativism: refusing any compulsion upon Titus to be circumcised (Gal 2:3), yet willingly arranging Timothy’s circumcision (Acts 16:3); opposing Judaizers at one extreme (Gal 5:12), but antinomians at the other (1 Cor 6:12); and preaching to Jews at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13-43) in a way barely recognisable to his preaching to Greeks in Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Paul’s ministry is flexible to the point of apparent inconsistency. However it is his understanding of the gospel that provides a higher consistency, consciously and methodologically shaping his ministry. Consistent submission to the gospel demands enormous flexibility. This flexibility however, is not unbounded, but is in order to win people to Christ. Contextualising is the first step not the last. The gospel itself, therefore, dictates both the flexible and the rigid characteristics of his ministry – as it should ours. Similarly, the gospel provides both the mandate and the control for using the CGM: encouraging and limiting our flexibility. There is only one gospel, but there’s a multiplicity of methods.

God the Missionary
To gain Paul’s gospel perspective, we need to understand God’s salvific purposes for creation. Israel’s election by God brought with it the obligation to be a light to the nations. But in Jesus’ estimation Israel had failed in this task (Mk 11:17, Mt 23:13-15). He gathered up a reconstituted Israel, the twelve apostles, to be “fishers of men” (Mk 1:17), “labourers in the harvest” (Lk 10:2) and “shepherds of the flock” (Jn 21:15-17). They were to become the light to the nations (Mt 5:15), inheriting the promises of Israel and fulfilling her vocation. Through them he would build his church (Matt 16:18). Jesus commissioned his disciples to take the gospel to the world, making disciples (Matt 28:18-20).

Mission, therefore, is not a function of the church but a fundamental expression of its life. God’s people declare the gospel of reconciliation through Jesus life, death and resurrection to all….and when the gospel is proclaimed its power is such that people are saved… and when people are saved they are brought into fellowship with God’s people. Evangelism leads to church growth! The gospel is preached and churches grow. God wants his church to grow! (Matt 16:18, 28:16-20, Acts 1:8). The Book of Acts emphasises numerical growth (2:41,47; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1,7; 9:31; 11:21,24; 14:1,21; 16:5; 17:12). Paul prays for the message of the gospel to spread rapidly (2 Thess 3:1) and reports this as happening (Col 1:6). Of course, there are many theological nuances we must bring to this perspective on growth, often neglected by the CGM. But their basic presupposition is correct: the NT is optimistic about these last days. Despite suffering, resistance and rejection, the Word of God will go on in triumph.

CGM: Pragmatic Missionaries?
The biblical evidence supports the contention of Donald McGavran, the father of the CGM, that “it is God’s will that his church grow”. Furthermore, following Paul’s model of controlled pragmatism, we must be open to the possibility of using “all possible means” – including tools from the fields of management, marketing, psychology, and communications – in our evangelism. They are powerful tools indeed for the growth of the gospel. We are free to plunder Egypt. But we must not build a golden calf5. All truth is God’s truth: we should plunder the best insights of modernity, expanding our toolbox, selecting the finest tools as servants for the gospel. However, biblical history shows that even God’s own gifts can become idols. Wary of the depths of our hearts’ idolatry and the lengths of God’s iconoclasm, we must be discerning of modern insights and tools, and conscious of their double-edged nature. Their very brilliance can lead us to idolise technique, planning God out of the picture. It is easier now than ever to live without God. Our strategies are most dangerous at their best – we can create a powerful religion with no need for God, statistical might with no need for prayer, and technological strength with no need for God’s Word.

Our challenge then is not a choice of God or church growth techniques. As ever, it is a choice of God or gods. The challenge is to take the treasures of modernity and use them in the service of God’s gospel. The following are some guidelines for meeting this challenge.

On Not Building Golden Calves
Here are some of the key problems of the CGM that we would do well to avoid.

Theological barrenness – the CGM has not developed theological foundations to match its technical sophistication. Theology is seen as cerebral, divisive and remote. Popular writing is used as an excuse for lack of theological reflection. When the Bible is used, it is often handled badly. As sociology triumphs over theology, methodology takes centre stage. Effectiveness is the criterion of evaluation. Amazingly, P.Wagner declares Jesus a ‘success’ for having an annual growth rate of 155% (it’s perhaps unfortunate that this approach makes the Apostles more successful than Jesus, with 222%)6. Numbers, gimmicks and slogans overwhelm theology. The motto seems to be: ‘If it works, theologise it!’

Definitional inaccuracy – both “church” and “growth” are capable of carrying unbiblical meanings or emphases. Church in membership terms can increase while the actual people of God decreases. Outreach can be reduced to ‘indrag’ – getting people into church rather than disciples into the kingdom. Alternatively, a church can grow dramatically without there being any real gospel growth in its area: i.e. transfer growth, re-shuffling the 52 cards. Gospel growth, however, goes beyond reaching the reached. Further the possibility of “bad growth” is foreign to the CGM. Little attempt is made to evaluate qualitative aspects of growth – church health. Numerical growth is an important biblical category but not the only one. As Guinness has said, “Big Mac, even with billions of burgers sold, does not mean Good Mac”7. Theologically, a broader definition of growth needs to be developed. Membership statistics do not indicate faith, vitality or growth in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (2 Pet 1:2-9). What about changed lives – godliness and character? A strategy which is effective in reaching people for a perverted gospel is unhealthy evangelism.

Felt Needs and Discipleship – an overemphasis upon felt needs turns God into a cosmic Santa Claus. The least demanding churches are in greatest demand – sin, self-denial, sacrifice, judgement, suffering, hell are not highly marketable commodities. Even forgiveness can be reduced to “peace of mind”. The radical claims of the gospel are left behind. A reductionistic focus on conversion sidelines the notion of a continuing response to the claims of Christ (Rom 12:1-2) – but the problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar! Many contemporary evangelicals are imitating the liberals criticised by Niebuhr – “a God without wrath [bringing] men without sin into a Kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross”.

The problem of numbers – calculating easily leads to self-reliance and presumption before God. Counting means control – but who really gives the increase (1 Cor 3:6-7)? Our motivation must be deep compassion for the lost and profound desire for God’s glory. As we count numbers, whose glory are we seeking? The lesson of David in 1 Chronicles 21 shows the sinful side of our desire to count – a failure to trust in God. Revealingly, Leadership journal’s analysis of the church growth movement on its 21st birthday was purely statistical, not theological. However, the CGM’s sociological foundations are often as unstable as their theological foundation is lacking. Their primary focus on internal factors ignores external sociological trends that affect growth and decline. For example, a pastor in a declining rural community may be given an unwarranted sense of failure by D.McGavran’s words that “if any church will study church growth, read about it, talk about and pray about it, that church will grow”8. Furthermore, there is an unbalanced focus on front-door statistics – who comes and why, over back-door statistics – who leaves and why.

Methods and message – our goal is to alter tactics, not to alter the truth. But there is a constant danger that the former will lead to the latter. If marketing concepts dominate, and “the audience, not the message, is sovereign” as Barna suggests9, the gospel of Jesus Christ is no longer the end but simply the means. We must be sensitive to culture, but the Lordship of Christ inevitably clashes with all cultures. Without truth, relevance is dangerous. Without the timeless truth of the gospel, our relevance today guarantees our irrelevance tomorrow… theological shallowness is not only a spiritual failure but pragmatic stupidity!

Triumphalism vs weakness – The NT often links witness to Christ with suffering rather than triumphalism. Paul is not a ‘peddler of the gospel’ (2 Cor 2:17) like the ‘superapostles’, who define mission in the categories of triumphalism. Rather, he glories in weakness (12:9). We do not merely proclaim the message of the cross, we enter into its experience. We rest in God’s strength.

On Plundering Egypt
Pursuing growth – why are we are told that 3000 were baptized at Pentecost? Presumably we are to be impressed and excited by numerical growth in the people of God. While emphasising the importance of qualitative growth, we must not set it against quantitative growth. Stressing the former is no excuse for evangelistic complacency.

The real dirty word: inflexibility – we must ruthlessly evaluate our strategies. Productive mission means hard work (2Tim 2:6). Are we in maintenance mode? As we theologise decline – could it be that people are in fact receptive to the gospel but simply alienated by our methods? Church meetings, for example, are still a prime evangelistic tool – but they must be thoroughly evaluated from the perspective of the outsider (1 Cor 14:22ff). Church liturgies are not sacrosanct. The average Australian reading age is that of a 13 year old. Are we communicating? We exegete the word – but do we exegete the world? Throughout history, Christians have tirelessly sought to innovate and adapt for the sake of the gospel. Mainline churches in Australia, however, are operating under the illusion that we live in a churched culture. We need to overhaul ourselves for effective mission. The CGM can help us here.

Description vs prescription – where the CGM often flounders is in moving from is to ought, from description to prescription. Aware of this, we should recognise that modern insights are most useful to us at the level of description.

Plunder away
We make two common errors as we deal with the Church Growth Movement. Applauding it simply because it works is seduction. But dismissing it simply because it works is reactionism

We must plunder freely of the treasures of modernity, wary that what comes out of the fire – the test our ministry – “is gold fit for the temple of God and not a late 20th century image of a golden calf”10. We need wisdom to discern promise from peril. Our faithfulness to the gospel relates to process as well as content. Of course we must preserve the true gospel of Christ, but we must proclaim it through appropriate methodology. Faithful proclamation is not merely speaking words into the air, but communicating. Our desire is faithfulness but it is also fruitfulness. If behavioural science, marketing or managerial insights help us reap a havest, let’s plunder away!

Steve Cree, at the time of writing, was about to undertake a church planting venture in Northern NSW, Australia



1 reported in R.Johnson, “Preaching a Gospel of Acquisitiveness” in Wall Street Journal, 11 Dec 1990.

2 J.Strader quoted in R.Johnson, “Preaching a Gospel…”

3 B.Edmonson, “Bringing in the Sheaves” in American Demographics, August 1988, p57.

4 B.Findlayson, “Liturgy: are we worshipping the god of pragmatism?” in Southern Cross, May 1997, p15. Emphasis mine.

5 O.Guinness, Dining with the Devil (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), echoing Origen’s assertion.

6 P.Wagner, Your Church can Grow, 165-9.

7 O.Guinness, Dining with the Devil, 50.

8 D.McGavran & W.Arn, How to Grow a Church, Ventura: Regal, 1973, 15.

9 G.Barna, Marketing the Church, (Albatross, 1988), 145.

10 O.Guinness, Dining with the Devil, 90.

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