What are the iniquities of the church growth movement that make it inadequate for today? If you listen to the critiques, I believe you’ll find that the answer lies in not what the movement taught per se, but in the questions that the movement was trying to solve. As Donald McGavran and his followers developed church growth methodology, it seems that they were doing important kingdom work, given their set of problems and presuppositions. Their problems started by trying to understand dramatic variations in evangelism effectiveness on the mission fields of India and ended with trying to reverse declining church attendance in North America. Their presuppositions were bound within Christendom; they worked when Christianity was a viable, latent force within Western culture. They were not dealing with the postmodern shift that we face today. Rather, they were trying to figure out better evangelism methodology within the paradigm of accepted Christianity. Keep in mind that McGavran’s earliest thinking was chiseled from his missionary work in India as early as the 1920s. Approximately 50 years after McGavran’s influence began, it became clear that change was imminent. One of the most significant events in identifying the shift to a post-Christian era came in 1983 with publication of Bishop Newbigin’s The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Church.1 This short monograph recognized the changes that were occurring and initiated conversation about the future of the church.
Now if the set of problems and presuppositions change (to new ones we are now facing), does this make the conclusions of the church growth era wrong? No, it just makes them less applicable. For example, do I rag on my grandfather if he can’t figure out how to wind up his quartz watch? Of course not. Instead, I gently tell him that the darn watch doesn’t need to wind up anymore.
People often make bullet lists of positive and negative contributions of the church growth movement, but I propose a critique that I hope is as useful as it is simple. First, let’s salute Donald McGavran as a man who labored for the gospel before the dawn of the post-Christian era. Dare I say that this missionary had some brilliant observations? Second, let’s identify the real problem more clearly.
Church Growth vs. Growth Idolatry
Much of the bad rap for church growth stems from the concern over a preoccupation with numbers. The idea is that too much focus on quantity-getting people through the doors of the church-dilutes some other emphasis on quality (however the church chooses to definite it, for example as spiritual growth or theological depth). But does an inordinate focus on church attendance come from the growth principles themselves, or from something deeper within the leader’s heart? Is it possible that the real culprit is not the movement per se but a “growth idolatry” lurking in the leader’s life? Growth idolatry is the unconscious belief, on the soul level, that things are not OK with me if my church is not growing. I have struggled with this sin, and I know many other leaders do too.
An idol is anything we add to Jesus in order to make life work. The irony is that in the call to preach the gospel many ministers fail to apply the gospel personally in ways that free their heart from a performance trap. This performance, of course, is measured most easily by church attendance; so the temptation to compare is always as close as our heartbeat. For some, the competition nurtured through sports fanaticism or market indicators magnifies the intensity of having to grow. When it’s time to attend a pastor’s gathering, deep emotions are connected to how the church is doing. If it’s growing, we can’t wait to find subtle ways to tell our ministry colleagues. If it’s not, we hope no one asks (or we just don’t attend the group). One of my closest friends in ministry confessed to me that the worst year of his life was the first year his church did not grow. Addicted to a track record of 15 percent growth over 10 years, he saw the first year of attendance plateau, hitting him like the black plague.
Show Me the Bigger Box!
The result of growth idolatry is the default vision of the “bigger box” church. The ever-present vision for campus expansion and larger buildings is the epitome of the attractional model. Are there other ways to expand the kingdom? Yes, but growth idolatry strongly persuades us that kingdom growth must mean numerical growth of our local church. So I ask, who really wanted the bigger box: the church growth principle? the people in the church? the pastor? As Larry Osborne of North Coast Church always says, “People like it small, but leaders like it big.” Thus we return to Bottger’s ironic dilemma of being imprisoned because of his own success. The problem in applying some good methods to grow is that they work. When they do, we open a door to the possibility of becoming a slave to the growth in attendance at our church. Howard Hendricks understood this when he exhorted us as young pastors, “I am not fearful for your failure; I am fearful for your success.”
I see growth idolatry reflected most often in three scenarios. The first is when churches exhibit little financial generosity outside of their local ministry. One pastor I know has a vision of planting thousands of churches in his lifetime. But with each year of success and more resources to invest in planting, the mother church seems to grow ever stingier. The second is when churches get their bigger building but don’t know what to do next. I did a funeral with a pastor in St. Louis years ago. As we drove from the gravesite, he confessed that after moving into their $10 million facility, he was completely at a loss when it came to the church’s vision. Instead of discovering his Church Unique and clarifying a new vision, growth idolatry had demanded the bigger box. The third scenario is rapid expansion of the multisite movement. Although multisite is a strategic option for many, it can serve the growth idolatry of some who would be better off planting churches than leveraging one teacher across other local venues.
A poignant statement in the vein of growth idolatry was made by Gordon MacDonald. He posed the issue years ago at Willow Creek Summit in this way: “I have wondered if our evangelical fervor to change the world is not driven in some part by the inability to change ourselves.” Pointing the drive of more impact back to the brokenness within, God used his question to help me see my own idolatry that day. Reggie McNeal offers another reflection on the same problem. “Unfortunately it [the church growth movement] fell victim to an idolatry as old as the Tower of Babel, the belief that we are the architects of the work of God. As a result we have the best churches men can build, but are still waiting for the church that only God can get the credit for.”
1. Guder, Darrell, and Barrett, Lois. The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998, p. 3.
From Church Unique, by Will Mancini, pp. 36-38. Copyright © 2008, Will Mancini. Published by Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA. Used by permission.