Appealing to the masses, and even manipulating them, has become a science.
For some time now, the evangelical church has operated on the same basis. Numerical growth, for some congregation, seems to be the only goal. If the church grows, then the leadership must be doing something right. After all, bigger is better.
Is Numerical Growth a Legitimate Goal?
Perhaps I should say that I am no opponent of large churches or of church growth. Grace Community Church was founded more than sixty-five years ago and has experienced tremendous growth through most of its history.
What I oppose is the pragmatism often advocated by church growth specialists who elevate numerical growth over spiritual growth and who believe they can induce that numerical growth by following whatever techniques seem to be working at the moment. The faddism bred by that philosophy has proven itself unruly. It has diverted people from biblical churches and churches from biblical priorities, while producing a handful of megachurches whose growth is dependent on their ability to anticipate and respond to the next cultural trend. The church has been drawn away from true revival and is being seduced by those who advocate the popularization of Christianity. Tragically, most Christians seem oblivious to the problem, satisfied with a Christianity that is fashionable and highly visible.
Is numerical growth a legitimate goal in church ministry? Certainly no worthy church leader would seriously argue that numerical growth is inherently undesirable. And no one believes that stagnation or numerical decline are to be sought. But is numerical growth always the best gauge of a church’s health?
I agree with George Peters, who wrote,
Quantitative growth . . . can be deceptive. It may be no more than the mushrooming of a mechanically induced, psychological or social movement, a numerical count, an agglomeration of individuals or groups, an increase of a body without the development of muscle and vital organs. . . .
In many ways the expansion of Christendom has come at the expense of the purity of the gospel and true Christian order and life. The church has become infested with pagan beliefs and practices, and is syncretistic in theology. . . . Large segments have become Christo-pagan.George Peters, A Theology of Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 23–24.
Nothing in Scripture indicates that church leaders should set numerical goals for church growth. Here’s how the apostle Paul described the growth process: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6–7, emphases added).
If we concern ourselves with the depth of our ministry, God will see to the breadth of it. If we minister for spiritual growth, numerical growth will be as God determines.
What good, after all, is numerical expansion that is not rooted in commitment to the lordship of Christ? If people come to church primarily because they find it entertaining, they will surely leave as soon as they stop being amused or something comes along to interest them more. And so the church is forced into a hopeless cycle where it must constantly try to eclipse each spectacle with something bigger and better.
The Pragmatic Roots of the Church Growth Movement
Pragmatism as a philosophy of ministry gained impetus from the modern church growth movement. Donald McGavran, the father of that movement, was an unabashed pragmatist. He said:
We devise mission methods and policies in the light of what God has blessed—and what He has obviously not blessed. Industry calls this “modifying operation in light of feedback.” Nothing hurts missions overseas so much as continuing methods, institutions, and policies which ought to bring men to Christ—but don’t; which ought to multiply churches—but don’t. We teach men to be ruthless in regard to method. If it does not work to the glory of God and the extension of Christ’s church, throw it away and get something which does. As to methods, we are fiercely pragmatic—doctrine is something else.Donald McGavran, “For Such a Time as This” (unpublished address, 1970), cited in C. Peter Wagner, “Pragmatic Strategy for Tomorrow’s Mission,” in A. R. Tippet, ed., God, Man and Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 147.
McGavran founded the Institute of Church Growth, which in 1965 united with the Fuller School of World Mission. From there the pragmatic precepts of the church growth movement reached into virtually every mission field worldwide.
C. Peter Wagner was Donald McGavran’s best-known student and became the professor of church growth at the Fuller School of World Mission. Wagner was the most prolific if not the most influential spokesman in the church growth movement. He wrote of the movement’s inherent pragmatism:
The Church Growth Movement has always stressed pragmatism, and still does even though many have criticized it. It is not the kind of pragmatism that compromises doctrine or ethics or the kind that dehumanizes people by using them as means toward an end. It is, however, the kind of consecrated pragmatism which ruthlessly examines traditional methodologies and programs asking the tough questions. If some sort of ministry in the church is not reaching intended goals, consecrated pragmatism says there is something wrong which needs to be corrected.C. Peter Wagner, Leading Your Church to Growth (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1984), 201.
Wagner, like most in the church growth movement, claimed that the “consecrated pragmatism” he advocated does not allow compromise of doctrine or ethics. “The Bible does not allow us to sin that grace may abound or to use whatever means that God has prohibited in order to accomplish those ends He has recommended,” he noted correctly.C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1976), 160–61.
“But with this proviso,” Wagner continued, “we ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means. What else possibly could justify the means? If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method. If, on the other hand, my method is not accomplishing the goal, how can I be justified in continuing to use it?”Ibid., 161 (emphasis in original).
Is that true? Certainly not. Especially if “the goal I am aiming at” is a numerical goal with no biblical warrant, or if “my method . . . not accomplishing the goal” is the clear preaching of God’s Word. That is precisely the kind of thinking that is moving biblical exposition out of Christian ministry and replacing it with vaudeville.
One best-seller goes even further:
It is . . . critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign. If our advertising is going to stop people in the midst of hectic schedules and cause them to think about what we’re saying, our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience. When we produce advertising that is based on the take-it-or-leave-it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people’s needs, people will invariably reject our message.Barna, Marketing the Church, 145 (emphasis added).
What if the Old Testament prophets had subscribed to such a philosophy? Jeremiah, for example, preached forty years without seeing any significant positive response. On the contrary, his countrymen threatened to kill him if he did not stop prophesying (Jeremiah 11:19–23); his own family and friends plotted against him (Jeremiah 12:6); plots were devised to kill him secretly (Jeremiah 18:20–23); he was beaten and put in stocks (Jeremiah 20:1–2); he was spied on by friends who sought revenge (Jeremiah 20:10); he was consumed with sorrow and shame—even cursing the day he was born (Jeremiah 20:14–18); and finally, falsely accused of being a traitor to the nation (Jeremiah 37:13–14), Jeremiah was beaten, thrown into a dungeon, and starved many days (Jeremiah 37:15–21). If an Ethiopian Gentile had not interceded on his behalf, Jeremiah would have died there. In the end, tradition says he was exiled to Egypt, where he was stoned to death by his own people. He had virtually no converts to show for a lifetime of ministry.
Suppose Jeremiah had attended a church growth seminar and learned a pragmatic philosophy of ministry. Do you think he would have changed his style of confrontational ministry? Can you imagine him staging a variety show or using comedy to try to win people’s affections? He may have learned to gather an appreciative crowd, but he certainly would not have had the ministry God called him to.
The apostle Paul didn’t use a system based on merchandising skill either, though some self-appointed experts have tried to make him a model of the new pragmatism. One advocate of marketing technique asserts, “Paul was one of the all time great tacticians. He perpetually studied strategies and tactics to identify those that would enable him to attract the most ‘prospects’ and realize the greatest number of conversions.”Ibid. 31–32. Of course, the Bible says nothing like that. On the contrary, the apostle Paul shunned clever methods and gimmicks that might proselyte people to false conversions through fleshly persuasion. Paul himself wrote,
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1–5)
He reminded the church at Thessalonica,
For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness—nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. (1 Thessalonians 2:3–6)
Biblical correctness is the only framework by which we must evaluate all ministry methods.
Any end-justifies-the-means philosophy of ministry inevitably will compromise doctrine, despite any proviso to the contrary. If we make effectiveness the gauge of right and wrong, how can that fail to color our doctrine? Ultimately the pragmatist’s notion of truth is shaped by what seems effective, not by the objective revelation of Scripture.
A look at the methodology of the church growth movement shows how this occurs. The movement studies all growing churches—even those with false doctrine at the core of their teaching. Liberal denominational churches, extreme charismatic sects, and militant hyper-fundamentalist dictatorships all are held up to the specialist’s scrutiny. Sometimes principles of growth are gleaned even from Mormon assemblies and Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Halls. The church growth expert looks for characteristics common to all growing churches and advocates whatever methods seem to work. And the issue is always numerical growth.
Are we to believe that growth in non-Christian congregations is proof that God is at work there? Why would we want to duplicate the methodology of religious groups that corrupt the gospel? Isn’t it fair to question whether any growth resulting from such methods is illegitimate, engineered by fleshly means? After all, if a method works as well for a cult as it does for the people of God, there’s no reason to assume positive results signify God’s blessing.
Utterly missing from most of the church growth literature is any critical analysis of the faulty doctrinal platform on which much contemporary church growth is built.
The fact that a church is growing is often mistaken for divine sanction. After all, people reason, why be critical of any teaching that God is blessing with numerical growth? Is it not better to tolerate doctrinal flaws and lapses of orthodoxy for the sake of growth and unity? Thus pragmatism molds and shapes one’s doctrinal outlook.
It is folly to think one can be both pragmatic and biblical. The pragmatist wants to know what works now. The biblical thinker cares only about what the Bible mandates. The two philosophies oppose each other at the most basic level—and only one will be victorious.
(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel.)