Church Growth—Success At What Price?

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The seductions of the modern world can be just as hard to resist as its benefits are to refuse. After all, if the church is in the business of growth, and growth is achieved through better management and marketing, then to say “no” to church growth is to be too spiritual for our own good. Whatever works so well must surely be good.

But is this really so? What if the very effectiveness has the effect of secularization—of making God irrelevant? Secularization can be defined as the process by which, starting from the center and moving outward, successive sectors of modern society have been removed from the decisive influence of religious ideas and institutions. Faith that is irrelevant in practice is practically irrelevant.

The two most easily recognizable hallmarks of secularization in America are the exaltation of numbers and technique, and both are prominent in the church-growth movement. In its fascination with statistics and data at the expense of truth, the church-growth movement is characteristically modern. Some people argue that the emphasis on quantifiable measures—on counting—is the central characteristic of a rationalized society. Thus the United States has government by polling, television programming by ratings, sports commentary by statistics, education by grade-point averages, and academic tenure by the number of publications. In such a world of number crunchers, bean counters, and computer analysts, the growth of churches as a measurable, “fact-based” business enterprise is utterly natural.

The problem with this mentality is that quantity does not measure quality. Numbers have little to do with truth, excellence, or character. As one sociologist says, “Big Mac,” even with billions and billions served, need not mean “Good Mac.” But what is misleading even at the trivial level of fast food becomes dangerous as one moves through sports prowess, educational attainment, and presidential character to spiritual depth. For church growth viewed in measurable terms, such as numbers, is trivial compared with growth in less measurable but more important terms, such as faith, character, and godliness. The latter, of course, does not preclude the former. But nor does the former necessarily include the latter.

A telltale preoccupation with technique is also prominent in the church-growth movement and is linked to secularization. The assumption is that life can be viewed as a set of problems, each set having a rational solution, an identifiable expert, and therefore a practical mechanism to effect it. Take the example of a wellknown Christian magazine that is designed for pastors and deals with the problems of leadership in the churches. A survey of the magazine showed that over the course of time, the magazine had examined almost every conceivable church problem in its pages. Yet, believe it or not, less than one percent of the articles had any reference to Scripture at all, or any serious theological component. In the form of the imperialistic genius of managerial and therapeutic insights, galloping secularization left theology in the dust.

Or take the example of the changing profiles of the pastor. Needless to say, distortions of the ministry are not new. In 1886, Nation magazine reported: “Indeed, so far has the church caught the spirit of the age, so far has it become a business enterprise, that the chief test of ministerial success is now the ability to ‘build up’ a church. Executive, managerial abilities are now more in demand than those which used to be considered the highest in a clergyman.”

A century later, the distortions have deepened and grown characteristically modern. Thus in a massive study in 1934, pastors were said to have five distinct roles—teacher, preacher, pastor, leader, and administrator. These roles are notable for being few in number and biblical in content. But in another huge study in 1980, involving forty-seven denominations, evidence showed that the pastor’s profile both expanded and grew more secular. Pastors were expected to be open, affirming, able to foster relationships, experienced in facilitating discussion, and so on. The new premium was on skills in interpersonal relationships and conflict management. Biblical and spiritual criteria of ministry were notably optional.

Yet another study in 1986 showed that the differences in expectations between liberals and evangelicals had almost disappeared, that secular expectations grew while the spiritual shrunk, and that the profile was largely dominated by two sets of considerations—those therapeutic and managerial.

Anyone who doubts this shift has only to look at church-growth literature and check for such chapters as “Portrait of the Effective Pastor.” In one such best-seller, theology and theological references are kept to a minimum—little more than a cursory reference to the pastor’s “personal calling” and to “God’s vision for the church.” The bulk of the chapter is taken up with such themes as delegating, confidence, interaction, decision making, visibility, practicality, accountability, and discernment—the profile of the pastor as CEO.

Unquestionably, the discussion is admirable. But unquestionably too the discussion is only of “the interchangeable.” There is nothing there about the “irreducible,” the “remainder,” and the otherwise inexplicable. Thus the leadership qualities could apply in a hundred other organizations—after all, they once did, and were simply borrowed. Worse still, the disadvantage of the CEO-Pastor, as increasing numbers of them are discovering, is that those who live like CEOs are fired like CEOs—and spiritual considerations have as little to do with the ending as with the beginning and middle. Small wonder that one eminent Christian leader returned home from a church-growth conference puzzled. There had been “literally no theology,” he said. “In fact, there had been no serious reference to God at all.

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