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I am opposed to church growth

November 6, 2015

50 years ago the School of World Mission launched. Very few in the church have heard of the School of World Mission, but very few have escaped the powerful influence of this institution. The School of World Mission is an institute designed to teach missionries and pastors how to grow church and spread the gospel. The defining feature of the program is its emphasis on creating bridges with the culture and was built on the work of one missionary to remove all cultural barriers to the gospel. Their goals are loosely Biblical, if you squint a little and don’t ask for too many definitions. The desire to make the gospel as accessible as possible is praiseworthy, but the School of World Mission has duped many churches into trading truth for cultural relevance. The School of World Mission is responsible for the modern day church growth movement characterized by it’s seeker sensitive and market driven approaches to ministry.

Creating cultural bridges sounds like a good idea. No one wants to impose unnecessary obstacles to the preaching of the gospel. Anyone who has lived in a different culture knows each culture will produce it’s own set of challenges to presenting the gospel. For example, in the upper peninsula the large percentage of Catholics requires a different way of presenting the gospel than that used in the very Baptist south. Carefulness to explain well particular Biblical concepts that a culture may have difficulty understanding is not the aim of the church growth movement. The aim of the church growth movements is to maximize the appeal of the gospel and the church. This school of thought seeks to craft a church environment which will have the greatest attraction to the largest number of people within a target audience in a community.

In general, the church growth methodology begins with identifying the target audience for a church, often based upon the common characteristics of the core group within the church. If the pastor is a grunge-rock loving white man with a wife and young family, then the target audience is determined to be young white men in the grunge community. To reach the target audience, everything about the church is then tailored to be attractive to them. The structural aesthetics, music, dress and advertising are skillfully designed to attract the target audience. The messages are carefully crafted to speak to the immediate, surface needs of the the group. Since young white men are interested in finding wives and starting a family, then the messages will have a heavy emphasis on manhood. Because they are from the grunge subculture, the messages will be a bit edgy, maybe with a little bit of profanity or off color humor thrown in. The church growth movement carefully researches a target audience, then tailors the church and its message to be most appealing to the target.

Why is this a problem? If thousands of people are coming into church, hearing the gospel and making decisions for Christ, isn’t that what every Christian wants? Shouldn’t every Christian be following the example of the church growth movement? Despite what appear on to be good motives, the School of World Mission teaches a deeply flawed ministry methodology. The church growth movement is unapologetically pragmatic. They measure successfulness by attendance, decisions and influence. Such pragmatism in attracting crowds always results in the function and message of the church being shaped by the unsaved world. The content of the sermon is not determined by the Word but by what leaders believe will be the message people will come out to hear. The market driven church is always pressing to be on the cutting edge of relevance. The effort to be relevant results in a constantly moving ministry model which descends with the culture deeper into wickedness. Robert Schuller’s first drive-in church has given way to today’s shock-jock church sunk into sexual provocativeness in the ongoing attempt to appear relevant. The worst danger of this whole movement is how it handles the Bible. The Biblical message is inevitably changed to appeal to the sensibilities of the current market. Most church growth practitioners would argue they are not actually denying the Biblical message. However, in seeking to attract a broad audience, the movement emphasizes those parts of the Bible which are socially acceptable and overlooks those parts which are offensive to the culture. This produces an imbalance which so obscures certain points of the Biblical message they might as well not exist. This has played out in Andy Stanley’s instructing pastors to avoiding saying “the Bible says”, in Perry Noble’s re-issuing of the ten commandments as ten promises, and in thousands of pastors offering the gospel as the means for one to achieve his highest self.

True doctrine is always compromised because the church growth movement does not believe Biblical truth to be unchanging, eternal and cross cultural. One of the influential leaders in the movement, Charles Kraft, said that theology is a product of it’s culture and can never be the complete statement of Biblical truth. According to the church growth movement, theology is not a process of understanding the Word of God, but of pluralistic, culturally contextual discovery. In Kraft’s own words, “It is not simply the passive acceptance of a doctrinal product ‘once and for all delivered.'” In other words, the doctrines of the Bible have to be understood based upon the culture where the Bible is being read. The Bible is only effective as it’s message is reshaped by the culture. The belief that the Bible is the full and sole determiner of truth, and its expression is rejected by the church growth movement. Any theology that rejects the Biblical truth “once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3) is a false theology. Any ministry method founded on false theology is unable to produce a healthy church. It may produce large structures and draw massive crowds, but it is pathologically unable to create a healthy church.

The church growth movement is a failure because it denies the sufficiency of the Bible and the power of the gospel. God has given to His church the message for her to communicate. God has given to the church the means by which that message is to be communicated. The message and the means are the same, the Word of God. The Biblical message does not need to be tailored to the culture or the current generation. The message this world needs to hear is the gospel in its entirety without any parts tailored to be more acceptable to ears of the unsaved. The undistorted gospel is powerful to save those who hear. The Word is sufficient to capture, convict and convert the heart of any. This is obvious in the cross-cultural ministry of the apostles. Paul preached the same gospel to Jew and Gentile alike. His gospel to the gentiles in Thessalonika was little different from Peter’s gospel to the Jews in Jerusalem. The presentation of the gospel may have emphasized a necessary point to give greater clarity to the hearers, but the content was never changed. The church growth movement does not just change the presentation, it changes the message. Church growth practitioners are false teachers crafting their message to scratch itching ears. Christians are not crafters of a message. They are heralds. It is not the messengers place to contextualize the message to highlight the parts that will resonate with a particular sub-culture. We are to speak the message given to us in the fashion it has been given, making clear those points that may be misunderstood but presenting in it’s entirety the gospel.

The church failures of the church growth movement can be seen in their own churches. They have grown, but not in the healthy maturation of a living church. Christianity has been swelled with the inflammation of a dangerous infection. The long neglect of this infection has seeped into the entire body and the true church has been greatly weakened by its gangrenous spread. Generations of cultural Christians have grown up believing an eviscerated gospel. The absence of the powerful truths of the Word have produced churches filled with nominal Christians. The pseudo-Christian sub-culture has some outward trappings of Christianity but lacks the inward reality that only comes through the preaching of the gospel. One early pioneer of the church growth movement boasted of using their methods to bring the gospel to a Nigerian village which subsequently resulted in 95% of the population professing Christianity. For that to be true, someone misunderstood the gospel. I suspect that someone was the preacher. The church growth movement denies that the way to life is narrow. It seeks to tear down the gates and widen the road. In the process it paves over the power of the Holy Spirit and the sufficiency of the Word. Instead of leading men down a highway of holiness, it puts them on a massive interstate to hell. A broad gospel produces nothing but superficial changes and innoculates people against the true gospel. The church growth movement has not gone away. The application of its principles have come a long way since we were introduced to the concept of a purpose driven church, but it’s underlying ideologies of cultural appeal, relevance and Biblical subjectivism continue to influence churches all across America.

The Biblical model of church growth is found in the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2, ” And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”

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