Church Growth—the Movement of the Nineties

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The King is dead! Long live the King!” As with royalty earlier, so with popular movements and trends today —the passing of one signals the prevailing of another. Thus in the early 1990s the Christian Right is clearly on the wane, succeeded as a nationally important religious movement by the church-growth movement. Will this new movement achieve its ambitious goals? Will it change the landscape of American religion? Can the secrets of successful superchurches be carried over to small local churches? Any movement that hits Time and Christianity Today simultaneously deserves not only to be noticed but understood and assessed, which is the purpose of this short series of articles.

Many people identify the church-growth movement narrowly with its specific architects and advocates— most famously, the late Donald MacGavran and the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth School—or the most visible examples of its current success—most recently, the burgeoning “mega-” or “superchurches.”

But as I use the term, these individuals and churches are part of a much wider and more important movement linked by a series of underlying commitments: to Christian renewal through renewal of the church, as opposed to politics or the culture; to renewal of the church through renewal of the local church, as opposed to the denomination or parachurch ministry; to the renewal of the local church through the renewal of mission, as opposed to other priorities; and—importantly—to the renewal of mission through the employment of human sciences’ insights and tools to aid effective evangelism, particularly those borrowed from the fields of management, marketing, psychology, and communications. Viewed in this broader way, the church-growth movement is a “back to basics” movement that has a threefold significance.

First, spiritually speaking, the church-growth movement represents a concern for many of the most-needed components of Christian renewal and reformation. This can be seen by stressing only the movement’s most obvious emphases—the centrality of the church, the priority of mission, the possibility of growth, the necessity of thinking of outsiders, the acknowledgement of culture and of cultures, the insistence on real results, and the wisdom of using the best insights and technologies proffered by the key disciplines of the human sciences.

Second, culturally speaking, the church-growth movement represents the most influential movement in the American churches in the 1990s, as well as a significant expression of the search for the lost authority of faith. The contrast between the early 1980s and the early 1990s tells the story. For all the sustained activism of Operation Rescue and the talk of a new conservative political party, the Christian Right is largely a spent force; the shift to the centrality of local churches is both vital and illuminating.

Ten years ago the attention was on the Christian Right; today it is on church growth. Then the cry was “Mobilize!”; now it’s “Modernize!” Then the focus was politics and public life; now it is church and mission. Then the reliance was on populism and political strength; now it is on entrepreneurialism and managerial strength. Then the orientation was the past and the restoration of the nineteenth-century consensus; now it is the future and renewal. Then the attention was on “special-interest groups,” epitomized by the Moral Majority; now it is on the mega-churches, epitomized by Garden Grove and Willow Creek Community Church.

These cultural and spiritual shifts are enormously important. So long as the United States remains the world’s “lead society,” American society represents the advancing stormfront of modernity and a demonstration of its impact on the world of faith. American believers should therefore stand and prevail, demonstrating a recovery of the full integrity and effectiveness of the Gospel. How the church-growth movement fares in its proclaimed mission will therefore be both important and instructive.

Third, historically speaking, the church-growth movement is a significant new initiative in the long story of Christian innovation and adaptation. This fact is easily overlooked because of the rhetoric of the movement itself. Church growth leaders speak and write impatiently about Christians and churches who are “hidebound,” “stuck-in-the-mud,” or “dying for change.” This gives the impression of a Neanderthal church incapable of change.

Certainly, stories of diehard resistance to change are easy to find. But the Christian faith is unrivaled among the world religions for its genius in innovation and adaptation. And no branch of the Christian faith has demonstrated this genius more often and more successfully than the evangelical movement.

The darker side of this genius is the church’s proneness to compromise with the spirit of its age. But from the adaptations of the early church down to the innovations of eighteenth-century Methodism and nineteenthcentury revivalism, the Christian faith has been tirelessly determined to innovate and adapt for the sake of the Gospel.

Using the insights and technologies of modernity could therefore lead to one of the most fruitful periods of innovations in the church’s history. The managerial revolution, for example, should provide the church with a large, varied, and powerful toolbox. After all, its core theme is essentially that of stewardship, whether of people, resources, or time. And Christians fruitfully employed such categories as Jesus’ “new wine” and “new wineskins” long before anyone talked of “paradigm revolutions.” Were Christians to use the best fruits of the managerial revolution constructively and critically, the potential for the gospel is incalculable.

Whatever criticisms of the movement need to be raised, the point is beyond dispute. The church-growth movement is extraordinarily influential and significant within American churches today. At its best, it needs to be applauded. But where it is not at its best, it requires criticism so that it might be. The church of Christ concerned for the glory of Christ needs more—not less—of the best of true church growth.

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