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Coming Home to Roost

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 | Comments (16)

We learned in our last post that it is possible to be a faithful and effective missionary without excessive contextualization. In fact, there was a time when things like translating the Bible, eating native foods and wearing native clothing, and learning to appreciate the cultural interests and activities of the people among whom you lived as a missionary didn’t require fancy terminology to validate it (like contextualization or redeeming the culture); it was just good common sense.

So, what changed?

Once again, it came down to good old-fashioned pragmatism. Pragmatism, the proud banner of the church growth movement, is the one-word explanation for this popular preoccupation to contextualize gospel preaching and church ministry.

Flash back to India, early 1900s, and the sociological studies of Methodist missionary J. Waskom Pickett. He had been observing conversion and church growth rates among castes and social groups in certain parts of India. He started to identify and categorize common traits among groups that, from what he could see on the surface, had more conversions and higher rates of church growth. Pickett published his findings in a 1933 book called Christian Mass Movements in India.

Pickett’s book had a profound influence on Donald McGavran, the father of the church growth movement. (McGavran once said, “I lit my candle at Pickett’s fire.”) McGavran had been disappointed with the paltry results of his missionary work in India, and Pickett’s study gave him hope for better visible results. McGavran took Pickett’s work further, studying the causes and barriers to church growth, and the factors contributing to church growth among particular people groups. He also identified principles that could be used to guarantee higher rates of church growth.

McGavran formulated his theories of church growth around the now famous (but then controversial) homogeneous growth unit principle (a homogeneous unit is a group in society in which the members share common characteristics). McGavran taught that “men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.” If you don’t force people to cross barriers, you’ll see better results in evangelism and church growth. Simple.

That typically Arminian approach to evangelism (driven by an assumption of synergism, not monergism) emphasizes the choice of the sinner more than the sovereign election of God. It also perpetuates a fleshly tendency to trust the visible methods of man to the invisible power of God. What can immediately be seen, measured, analyzed, reported, and gloried in is more important than waiting on and trusting in the work of the Spirit that cannot be seen or measured (making it difficult to analyze).

McGavran resigned his missionary post in 1961 and founded the Institute for Church Growth in Eugene, OR. Four years later, in 1965, he moved his institute to the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission in Pasadena, CA. Together with C. Peter Wagner, Ralph Winter, and other missiologists, McGavran taught students of missiology, theology, and ministry the theories of church growth.

It didn’t take long for McGavran’s theories to take root and grow in the fertile, Arminian soil of American evangelical churches. McGavran and Wagner started teaching church growth classes at Lake Avenue Congregational Church. With the high-profile success of pastors like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels, other pastors wanted to know, “How did you do it? How can I grow my church like that?” As other pastors learned and applied the principles, they watched their churches grow bigger faster. The results became their own justification. Principles of church growth, at least in popular perception, were no longer just theories; they had become unarguable facts. Pragmatism had won the day.

In the face of dramatic statistical evidence—the so-called facts that attest to the success of church growth theory—who in their right mind would argue with its legitimacy?

We would.

The Bible is replete with examples of people who crossed barriers of race, language, class, and family to find the salvation of God. Ruth’s repentance runs counter to the whole thrust of the homogeneous unit principle, and she found salvation because of it. When Naomi tried to dissuade her from returning with her to the land of Israel—precisely because of the barriers of race, language, culture, and family—here’s how Ruth responded:

Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you. (Ruth 1:16-17)

In fact, Jesus required His followers to crash through every possible barrier to follow after Him. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). Those who lose their life for Christ’s sake, even when it means crossing barriers, show the same marks of the true repentance we see in Jesus’ great, great, … great grandmother Ruth.

It’s fascinating to see how the missions movement returned home to set the direction for the church. So much of what missionaries have accomplished is exemplary, useful, instructive, and enriching. But this church growth pragmatism has not been helpful at all. It causes pastors, missionaries, and church leaders to focus more on methodology than theology; more on the breadth of their ministry than the depth of it; and more on what can be seen and counted (which is pride-inducing) than on what is unseen and spiritual (which is God-exalting).

The egg pragmatism laid in faraway India was hatched in the missiological think-tanks of Fuller Seminary. Its offspring thrives in many of today’s evangelical churches. The early pioneers of church growth conceived the ideas that gave birth to the Seeker Movement. Their children have grown up to set the direction and the tone for many churches, and many church planting and foreign missions movements. This chicken has come home to roost, and American evangelicalism has never been the same.

Travis Allen
Managing Director


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#1  Posted by Kaleb Penner  |  Wednesday, October 12, 2011at 9:19 PM

Jesus said it as plain as can be: "I will build my church". Adopting popular church growth strategies ends up being a vote of non-confidence in the Godhead, and sadly it is a move many churches make too easily, my own included. I imagine some of these Church Growth advocates would hesitate to offer their advice if they were talking to Christ himself. Another of Jesus statements to Peter seem to apply: "Get behind me Satan! For you are not concerned with the things of God, but the things of man."

#2  Posted by Gabriel Powell  |  Thursday, October 13, 2011at 9:19 AM

That is a very insightful and helpful historical perspective!

#3  Posted by Kerry Halpin  |  Thursday, October 13, 2011at 10:57 AM

#1 (Kaleb)

That's probably the best argument I've heard yet against contextualization!

What possible reason is there for contextualization? I often hear "to help reach the lost" or "to help spread the gospel". If by "help" they mean making the gospel more palatable, they are denying the power of God in salvation (Ephesians 2:8). If by "help", they mean opportunity, one only has to be breathing to have the opportunity to spread the gospel. Neither of these are good excused to contextualize (1 Corinthians 2:2).

#4  Posted by Rudi Jensen  |  Friday, October 14, 2011at 12:08 AM

# 1 Kaleb Penner

I agree with your comment: "For you are not concerned with the things of God, but the things of man"

The fact that Jesus resurrected from the grave, changed everything from a human perspective. He once and for all proved He is God, and He confirms every word of God to be pure and true. Therefore teach it and preach it, but don’t tamper with it.

This world doesn’t know God, and many professing believers don’t either. The fact that God created the entire universe in 6 days, speaks on the magnitude of His eternal power, and how far man have fallen from the knowledge of God and His Holy nature.

#5  Posted by Dana Purdy  |  Friday, October 14, 2011at 9:39 AM

I belong to a ministry whose origin and population is largely non-North American, though I myself am Canadian. There are many things I can mention about the difficulties that have arisen out of cultural differences. However, while cultural differences need to be addressed when trying to serve N. Americans more effectively, I realize that above culture, age, language, etc. one's obedience to Jesus and his word is most important. The Holy Spirit is the same for all believers. If we are living in obedience to the word of God, the Holy Spirit will work and people will be saved regardless if one's English is perfect.

I am thankful for this blog because it is a breath of 'conservative' (I mean biblical) fresh air for me in such a time as this.

Thank you.

#6  Posted by Carol Gayheart  |  Sunday, October 16, 2011at 11:43 AM

The mere questions, “How did you do it?” and “How can I grow my church like that?” exposes the flaw: If “you” are the one doing it (& thus in control), then it is NOT GOD doing it (or being in control.) And what do you mean by calling it “your” church? Is it “your” church or CHRIST’S church? And what is your motivation for doing it if you are in essence leaving God out of the equation?

Man’s “manipulation” (which results only in a temporary change of men), rather than God’s “transformation” (which results in a permanent change of men) is like going on the “fad diet” that helps you to lose weight (temporarily); you may see a reduced change in your weight, however, once you return to your former eating habits, or try to “add back those foods you’ve eliminated during the diet”, the additional weight returns! Man clings to his “favorite sins” just as he does to his “favorite foods”, even while his conscience convicts him they are “not good for him”. It is the changed life over the long haul, like the changed physique, which demonstrates that true & permanent change in us.

Great posts Kaleb & Kerry! The “fad” gospel is not the “Gospel” at all!

And Thanks GTY Staff, as always!

#7  Posted by Mark A Smith  |  Monday, October 17, 2011at 11:42 AM

I appreciate the calls against contextualization...within reason and depending upon what you mean. Some of the comments by readers seem to border on thinking ANY type of "evangelistic effort" that presents the gospel in a way modern young people will understand is wrong. People have to hear about your church to come to it and find out about the gospel of Jesus Christ...Grace Community church has a coffee shop, right?

I appreciate the calls against contemporary music, but the 20-something crowd who has never attended church or read the Bible is pretty unlikely, at least initially, to be turned on by 130 year old hymns and a pipe organ. They don't know anything about the trinity, monergism vs synergism. Who is Paul again?

Just keep that in mind...The USA is, I think, harder to reach than some foreign cultures because people who are "unchurched" are really often "anti-churched". Often times I have to work just to get someone to even CONSIDER there is a God, let alone come to church and sing a hymn and listen to a sermon!!!!

#8  Posted by Kerry Halpin  |  Monday, October 17, 2011at 12:56 PM

#7 (Mark)

1 Corinthians 14:23,24,25 demonstrates the attitude towards unbelievers and the church. Namely, that the church is the body of Christ, and unbelievers are not members of that body - they are certainly and gladly welcome to come and hear the gospel, but they are not part of the body. We as the church should not consider how to cater to the world to make the church appealing to them John 3:19.

It is the Holy Spirit that changes the heart (Ephesians 2:8,9), not the more appealing manner in which the gospel or worship is presented. Jesus and the gospel are a stumblingblock and an offense to unbelievers and that will never change (Romans 9:33, 1 Corinthians 1:23, 1 Peter 2:7,8).

1 Peter 2:9 says that to the world we are a peculiar people, not a "just-like-you" people. Indeed that mantra is so rampant in today's churches. We were once like them, but we are new in Christ (Titus 3:3,4,5,6,7,8).

#9  Posted by Shirley Sears  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 6:39 AM

Can you really convince someone that GOD is real without the Holy Spirit enabling them to believe ? And why would an unbeliever want to come to church and sing a hymn about someone they don't even believe exists? Isn't church is for the edification of the saints not the evangelism of the unsaved?

#10  Posted by Mark A Smith  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 11:21 AM

A few comments:

1) Where did you get the idea that ALL contemporary music isn't edifying for believers? Music can be contempoary and appropriate for believers.

2) Do you all ever invite "unbelievers" to church? I and my fellow church attenders do, apparently you don't.

3) I try to reach the world for Christ on a daily basis. I do some in a manner that honors God, the Bible, and the role of the Holy Spirit...Mosy of the people my age and younger KNOW NOTHING about God, Jesus, and the Bible. A lot of work is needed to get them going in a direction towards God. NOTE: That is NOT TO SAY I am doing it. The Holy Spirit is. How can people hear unless there is a preacher that they will listen to?

#11  Posted by Mark A Smith  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 1:17 PM

#9- Shirley, so how does an unsaved person hear about Jesus? The church has no evangelistic charge? When and how is evangelism done?

#12  Posted by Tommy Clayton  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 2:39 PM

Mark # 11

Your comments seem to center around one theme--evangelism and the responsibility of the church. You summed it up best when asking Shirley # 9: So, how does an unsaved person hear about Jesus? The church has no evangelistic charge? When and how is evangelism done?

That question gets to the heart of the issue, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to interrupt your question to Shirley by asking one of my own. Your answer will be a good indication of where you stand. Here goes:

To evangelize an unbeliever, do you invite them to Jesus, or invite them to your church? If both, which comes first?

That’s getting to the heart of what Travis mentioned in another post, placing missiology under ecclesiology. That’s also what led him to say this in his “You might be a pragmatist” list:

If you believe evangelism rather than edification is the purpose of the church, you might be a pragmatist.

You’ll hear more about that in some upcoming posts.

#13  Posted by Kerry Halpin  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 4:05 PM

#10 (Mark)

1) Where did you get the idea that ALL contemporary music isn't edifying for believers? Music can be contempoary and appropriate for believers.

-On the contrary, I think a LOT of Christian music is definitely edifying. But I don't think the same music belongs in the church as a matter of reverence. More contemporary music invites the pride of men into the service. There was a very great post in a recent blog article on this site from a guy who was hired to play guitar in a church as a part of their contemporization, to liven up the music. He admitted that all it did was feed his ego and become more about the music and musicianship and less about Jesus. I don't think his experience is isolated to him, as I too am a musician and have been in worship bands, and most of the people I played with were all about playing awesome riffs and going off on very distracting musical tangents.

2) Do you all ever invite "unbelievers" to church?...

-Most certainly we invite unbelievers to church. Our point is that we don't change the message or the method of its delivery to be more appealing to unbelievers. We invite them to attend church for the sake of hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ, plain and simple.

3) ..."How can people hear unless there is a preacher that they will listen to? "

-I believe you hinted at something at the end here "...that they will listen TO". Romans 10:14 says that the unbelievers need to hear preaching, but doesn't say they need a preacher that is easy to listen to, as you have hinted. Again, as 1 Corinthians 1:23 states, the gospel is offensive to unbelievers and does not become "appealing" to them until the Holy Spirit opens their hearts.

In 1 Corinthians 2:2,4,5 Paul made clear that nothing of men's knowledge or desire is necessary for preaching, only the straight truth of the atoning work of Christ.

#14  Posted by Dan Wilson  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 6:13 PM

Before I came to Christ, the sermons were not appealing to me, for I was still in my sins. I was offended and use hatred as a mask.

Mark, no sermons are pleasing to me, it helps me to admitted that I a sinner fall short of the glory of God.. that quote is best for in a sermon. Sermons cuts me to the heart to confess and it helps us to grow and learn.. We all do the same and we are all sinners.

God bless. When I learn the sermons and put in heart. It's a good thing for everyone who needs it the most... Like silver refined in fire, it becomes pure..

#15  Posted by Mark A Smith  |  Tuesday, October 18, 2011at 6:38 PM

#13---I NEVER SAID to lighten the message...Preach sin. Preach the cross.... You gave an anecdotal example of a prideful guitar player...so guitars are out because ONE musician was prideful? I am very humble in my playing of music, whether on a piano or a guitar. Such a thing is possible.

The point I AM RAISING is that the message can be KEPT SOLID AND BIBLICAL, but the package is slightly different. There is nothing particularly holy about 19th century music, or choir robes, or hymnals, or stain glassed windows. There is no requirement to be dressed in a suit or dress. I've even heard people say it is worldy and compromising to project lyrics of songs onto the wall with a projector????

So, is keeping the mesage pure, but packaging it differently for consumption by modern people considered pragmatism?

I realize OTHERS compromise the message to count numbers and such. I am not talking about that. I am addressing the crowd thinks a pure, holy message goes worldy just because someone plugs in a guitar, or takes the tie off.

#16  Posted by Dan Wilson  |  Wednesday, October 19, 2011at 3:35 PM

Music is wonderful, but focal point is to worship God by speaking truthfully of His Word and giving God glory with songs and hynms to God alone..

To many churches focus on songs of how good they feel of themselves and light-hearten sermons.

Just a thought. God bless.