Church growth is all the rage these days. Type it into any search engine and you are sure to yield more results than you can shake a stick at. Church growth has become so popular there are even marketing agencies that will help you.
Much of this movement began in 1995 when popular teacher and pastor, Rick Warren, published his book, The Purpose Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission.
The book soared to the best selling list and every pastor that was seeing a decline in their numbers flocked to the bookstores in droves to learn the principles of church growth. Others soon began copying this style and writing their own books, but none saw the same success. Warren’s premise of church growth was based on five principles which he says he gleaned from Matthew 22:37-40 and Matthew 28:20:
On the surface, these principles seem biblical. These things are certainly in Scripture and we see these things present and real within the early church. For example, Acts 2:42-47 gives us a picture of what the first days of the fledgling church looked like.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The introduction of Warren’s book claims that it is not a formula for church growth but rather a formula for church health. If a church is healthy it will grow. The five principles, then, are the key to having a healthy, growing church. And with Warren recently claiming that Saddleback has matched the growth of the Acts 2 church, more people will now have to run out and invest in the book.
Many pastors jump on board the church growth bandwagon. They reason that if they follow what the early church did, success is certain. All that needs to be done is mimic the same methods that the early church participated in and watch the numbers explode.
But there is something wrong with this way of thinking. There is a lot wrong with this thinking. Specifically, I see five reasons why church growth strategies like the one laid out in Warren’s work hinders church growth rather than aid it.
1. Church Growth Strategies Tend to Focus on the Method
Methods are huge with the church growth crowd. The latest research, demographic dynamics, and what the church down the road is doing seem to be a big focus. While methods can be useful they should never exist as the be-all-end-all for the Church. Many methods are devised specifically to see an increase in numbers, but not always spiritual growth. This means then, that the methods are not Spirit derived but man-made. Anything man-made will not last. Although we are not to sit idly by and do nothing, it is best to remember that God doesn’t need our strategies and methods to grow His church. Jesus has already promised church “growth” to His disciples (Matt 16:18).
2. Church Growth Strategies Often Rely on Guilt-Tripping
Have you ever sat through a sermon where the pastor passionately pounds the pulpit (excuse my alliteration) on the topic of evangelism, all the while pointing his finger at the audience? Most of the time we see this kind of thing in old-fashioned revivals. But many pastors do the same thing when it comes to “growing” the church. ‘Service’ is the keyword. If you’re going to serve then it’s time to get off your duff and do it! Most preachers typically see this as exhorting rather than guilt-tripping. In reality, there is no difference. When service becomes compulsory and obligatory the laity tends to lose interest. Biblical exhortation, on the other hand, is simply an appeal to action rather than compelling. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he encouraged the young pastor to devote himself to three things: the public reading of Scripture, teaching, and exhortation (1 Tim 4:13). If ever there was a church growth strategy, this would be it.
3. Church Growth Strategies Tend to Focus on Numbers for Success
Most church growth methods that I’ve ever encountered were all about the numbers. No pastor wants to have a small church. Look at any church growth strategy and one of the first things you see is how many people could potentially respond by the church using the latest and greatest method. A numbers-focused method must rely on gimmicks and programs to attract and keep attendance steady. Pastors that become obsessed with numbers eventually give in to the pressure and end up doing silly things like Andy Stanley’s go-go dancers at a Christmas Eve service. The driving force behind any church that claims to worship the true God should be that of holiness and worship (Eph 3:21).
4. Church Growth Strategies Tend To Be Seeker-Sensitive Rather Than Biblically Sound
Seeker-sensitive is commonly described as gently pushing the lost towards salvation. Many of the methods used gear towards a more friendly, non-confrontational form of evangelism. In other words, don’t offend the person. This is often accomplished by refusing to confront people about sin or gradually sharing the gospel with them in pieces. While seeker-sensitive pastors can’t always be called outright heretics, they will compromise the “whole counsel of God” for the sake of keeping up their numbers. This spills over into their church growth ideas and eventually the Scripture messages begin to look more like pep talks on how to have a better marriage, family, well-behaved teens, etc, etc. The worship services begin to mimic secular concerts and entertainment venues, all in the name of making their guests feel “comfortable.” In contrast, even when he was being persecuted in his ministry God encouraged the apostle Paul to keep preaching because He was in control (Acts 18:9-10). Pastors, then, should follow this same example and resolve to preach the Word of God straight even when it isn’t popular (2 Tim 4:2).
5. Church Growth Strategies Often Fail to Prioritize the Preaching of the Word As Primary
In all the articles I examined about church growth strategies there was one thing that commonly missed by all of them: the preaching of the Word of God. The following examples come from the very top hits of church growth. (Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4) Scripture doesn’t really give us a formula for growing the church, at least not in the modern sense. Therefore, traditional preaching is deemed largely irrelevant to most church growth pastors. When one examines the early church they find the opposite. The Word was front and center. Take our introductory passage, Acts 2:42-47, for example. Luke tells us the laity devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching & fellowship. When the people came to Peter in Acts 6 with a dispute, Peter’s response was not to give up preaching the Word of God, but resolving by appointing others to help with the problem. The early church fathers devoted themselves to preaching and as result church growth exploded within the first three centuries. There was no method or strategy or demographic research. There was just–preaching. Consider the following images below of church growth, taken from Bild.org.
Most pastors that want to grow their church are sincere believers. They love God’s people and they love the Church. In an attempt to prove their dedication they end up sacrificing simplicity (not purposely, in most cases) in the name of numbers. There is one important thing they miss: any time the Bible mentions church growth it always states that God did it. It wasn’t because of a method, or a specific program, or even because of the way they were discipling their people. It was because they feared God and the people took notice of it (Acts 2:43, Acts 9:21).
It’s time for pastors to go back to the simplest form of church growth by preaching the pure word of God and living in holiness so that the laity as well as outsiders will be able to see that we are truly a peculiar people, set apart for God (1Peter 2:1-9).
Although this is not a post to “pick on” Rick Warren please view the video below to see how badly he handles the Scripture. This video is courtesy of Pirate Christian Media, headed by Pastor Chris Roseborough of Kongsvinger Lutheran Church in Oslo, Minnesota.