The late twentieth and early twenty-first century have witnessed the proliferation of churches, some of which have mushroomed overnight into mega ecclesiastical outfits with aggressive marketing policies.
Amissionary to India, Donald McGavran, had already formulated the main principles of church growth theory in the 1930s, but it was not until the 1970s that his ideas become widely accepted.
Chief among his works were the book Understanding Church Growth (1970) and the formation of the Fuller School of World Mission – involving prominent men like Arthur Glass, Peter Wagner, Alan Tippett, Charles Kraft and Paul Niebert.
Bill Hybels of Willow Creek is not the least among them. This uncanny fraternity of church growth gurus has promoted newly crafted ‘church growth’ ideas to pastors, missionaries and church staff all over the world.
One US-based magazine, Leadership,conducted a survey and discovered that 86% of pastors interviewed had read about these new church growth principles and thought they should be used because they are effective.
This, of course, is sheer pragmatism – ‘the end justifies the means’.
According to Os Guiness, the church growth movement is defined by its focus on the recognition of cultures, the insistence on tangible results (i.e. physical numbers), and the worldly wisdom of using the best insights and technologies proffered by secular science and art.
This leads to the acceptance of questionable theories like theistic evolution, the criticism of the biblical record (e.g. questioning the universal flood), and the growing fascination of the church with secular psychology (concepts like positive thinking and self-esteem).
The tools proposed by these gurus to bring about church growth are secular psychology, marketing technology and behavioural science.
Popularised by so-called Christian psychologists, this philosophy no longer sees biblical doctrine and church discipline as vital ingredients in modern church growth.
Using these pragmatic principles, they say, any church can expand – even if it is liberal in its doctrine. They are just practical techniques which, patterned on the world, can work for any church.
In his book Marketing the Church, George Barna sees the concept of church expansion as a business enterprise with a product to sell (i.e. a relationship with Jesus is a saleable ‘core product’ of Christianity).
Barna challenges each church to be the ‘Chrysler of tomorrow’ and to employ viable marketing strategies to bring people into church.
Accordingly, church marketing seminars and courses are offered instead of Bible study and Bible-based theological programmes.
An MBA or Master’s degree in missions, church management and counselling is the key to successful pastoring – through newly concocted church-growth techniques and theories.
The role of Scripture
In this pseudo-Evangelicalism, there is little need to study Bible-related subjects – such as the doctrines of grace, biblical and systematic theology, original languages, or church history.
In the church-growth gospel, method rules, and content is unimportant.
Of course, the Bible disagrees, pointing out that ‘all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
We believe in the authority, sufficiency, inspiration, perspicuity, inerrancy and providential preservation of the Scriptures.
In church life, decision-making skills, management and counselling abilities flow from a careful meditation on, and application of, the Word of God – not from man-made theorems.
One of the keys to revamping the church, according to these church-growth gurus, is ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ – a blatantly godless psychological concept.
According to this idea, man stands at the apex, destined to fulfil his fancies and desires, while the church can only survive and thrive as it helps him towards such self-actualisation.
This view of the sovereignty of human needs has led many churches to jettison sound doctrine and biblical practices, replacing them with entertainment-based worship and ostentatious ministry.
Church life has become a consumer culture in which we pander to the ‘felt needs’ of the members – as if they were the valuable clients of a commercial enterprise.
As a result, such things as ‘line’ and ‘prophetic’ dancing have been introduced to attract the young and excitable. Reverential worship has been ditched and the masses are (apparently) flocking to these new-style churches.
Offering a wide range of programmes to meet people’s needs, large modern community churches boast luxurious facilities for children and young people, child-care amenities, and entertaining worship services.
There are professional and amateur dancers and well-choreographed services – often with drums, synthesisers and loud jarring music.
People love it. So what’s wrong with these new church-growth principles?
Firstly, to compare the church to a secular business enterprise is a parody to say the least. The true church of Jesus Christ has nothing to sell.
Rather, it has a commission to preach the pure gospel of Christ and an uncompromising message to depraved sinners – ‘Surrender unconditionally to God!’
The apostle Paul puts it thus: ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.
‘And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God’ (Romans 12:1-2).
Secondly, church growth is not about marketing a spiritual product (compare the sale of ‘Indulgences’ during the sixteenth century, so strongly condemned by Martin Luther in his 95 theses).
The church declares unashamedly the absolute sovereignty of a holy God, who graciously summons sinners to evangelical repentance and a saving relationship with himself – through the propitiatory work of Jesus Christ at Calvary alone (Romans 5:1-8).
Simply put, the church proclaims unequivocally the gospel of free grace – the matchless message of redemption that meets not the felt and temporal needs of men, but their true and eternal needs.
The gospel declares our sinfulness and helplessness before God (in short, our ‘total depravity’), and the gift of righteousness from God through faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16).
The real church
Thirdly, genuine church growth does not involve recruiting people into an organisation, but redeeming people through the work of Christ. This is something only the Holy Spirit can do.
How does the real church grow? The Bible tells us: ‘[the disciples] continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.
‘And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles … And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved’ (Acts 2:42-47; emphasis added).
The church grows when God’s people honour him in his Word. When they preach the doctrine of Christ with fervent intercession and active evangelism; when they worship reverentially; and administer the sacraments to the glory of God.
Acts 9:31 gives us a further portrait of such a church: ‘Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied’ (emphasis added).
The measure of success
When we honour Christ, preach his Word, and obey his commandments, the Lord himself will bring about both spiritual and numerical growth.
Local congregations may shrink or grow, but every time a sinner is saved the church of Christ gets larger – for death does not remove a single soul from that great congregation!
The success of a church is not measured by its membership, physical assets, programmes or activities. It is not pragmatic optimism or the marketeer’s ingenuity that grows the churches of Jesus Christ.
The house that is built on sand will collapse in due time, but the church built on Christ the Rock will last for ever (1 Corinthians 10:4).
To marginalise the Word of God, prayer, dependence on Christ and reverential God-centred worship, is to undermine the very foundation of the church – with dire consequences in the light of eternity.
Worldly pragmatism and secular psychology has invaded the church. Secular techniques are substituted for biblical truth; marketing for gospel preaching; the temporal satisfaction of men for the spiritual health of the body of Christ.
A therapeutic healing of the body has replaced a biblical healing of the soul, and human organisation has usurped the spiritual organic unity of the church.
At the centre of it all is a shallow self-centred consumerism, coupled with a debilitating absence of fear and reverence for God.
Churches will pay a heavy price for setting aside truth and settling for ecclesiastical engineering and managerial skills.
Many churches today are in desperate need of spiritual repair and revival. They need to surrender secular methodologies and humanistic philosophies, and humbly return to scriptural precepts and practices.
They must dare to trust God, to honour his Word, and engage in reverential worship and Christ-centred evangelism until he comes.