Church Growth—Weaknesses to Watch

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Like many movements, the church-growth movement is a grand mixture of things good, bad, and in-between. After stressing its significance last month, I will not comment further on its good parts—except to say that anything that “goes without saying” is in danger of being left unsaid. The best of the church-growth movement deserves better than that.

Our present concern, however, is not the good but rather the bad and the in-between. For if the movement has a threefold positive significance, it also has a threefold weakness.

First, the church-growth movement has two common deficiencies. On the one hand, its theological understanding is superficial, with almost no element of biblical criticism. As a well-known proponent states, “I don’t deal with theology. I’m simply a methodologist”—as if his theology were thereby guaranteed to remain critical and his methodology neutral.

On the other hand, the movement relies on a minimal sense of historical awareness, particularly of comparisons with earlier periods that could throw light on the possibilities and pitfalls we face today. Two periods in particular provide fruitful parallels: the late eighteenth century and the story of European liberalism’s engagement with the “cultured despisers” of its day, and the early nineteenth century and the story of American evangelicalism’s fateful sea-change—not so much from Calvinism to Arminianism as from theology to experience, from truth to technique, and from an emphasis on “serving God” to an emphasis on “servicing the self” in serving God.

Second, the church-growth movement has two common flaws through which the deficiencies mentioned above become more serious. On the one hand, it employs an unbalanced application of a biblical principle. Known technically as “contextualization,” or more simply as “relevance,” this principle is indispensable to communication and obviously rooted in Scripture. The supreme pattern of the “contextualization” and “relevance” is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and such passages as 1 Corinthians 9:19–22 capture its full dynamic perfectly.

The record of Scripture and Christian history is equally clear: identification is basic to communication. But without critical tension it is a recipe for compromise and capitulation. It is no accident that the charge of being “all things to all people” has become a popular synonym for compromise. Joining people where they are is only the first step in the process; clear persuasion and genuine conversion is the last step.

On the other hand, the movement employs an uncritical understanding of modernity and its insights and tools. “Truth is truth,” as George Macdonald put it, “whether on the lips of Jesus or Balaam.” I would therefore be the last, either as a Christian or as someone trained in the social sciences, to deny the illuminating helpfulness of the social sciences. At the same time, however, it is amazing to witness the lemming-like rush of church leaders who abandon theology and charge after the latest insights of sociology—regardless of where the ideas come from or where they lead to.

Third, the church-growth movement carries two potential dangers. They can be summed up simply in the words “no God” and “no grandchildren.” In the first case, the problem results because the insights and tools of modernity can be so effective that there no longer appears any need for God. In the second case, the problem arises because the tools of modernity are successful in one generation, but cannot be sustained in the next. The success undermines the succession.

In short, through its uncritical use of modernity, the church-growth movement is unleashing a deadly form of “practical atheism” in the churches. The result is a contemporary testament to the extraordinary power of religion that has no need for God.

A Hammer and a Long Spoon

Critical discernment is necessary for all who appreciate the promise and the peril of the church-growth movement. Reminders will follow in consecutive articles to help cultivate that critical discernment. But these, in turn, have been shaped by three general considerations.

First, Christians tend to fall into two equal and opposite errors when thinking of new movements, such as church growth. One is to applaud it simply because it is new and it works—in this case adopting church growth as the beginning and end of contemporary renewal. The other error is to dismiss it because it is modern and it works. Thus, curiously, the first reaction accepts the church-growth movement without a qualm and the second attacks it without question—but both for the same reason, which almost by itself proves the need for discernment.

Second, two fundamental categories should shape all our thinking and living as believers, especially our use of the gifts and benefits of the world. One is the New Testament insistence that disciples of Christ are to be “in the world, but not of it,” or—to put the emphasis on time rather than space—that we are “no longer” what we were before we came to Christ, but “not yet” what we will be when Christ returns.

Each contrast expresses the critical tension with the world that we are required to maintain. This tension is simultaneously a sign of obedience and a source of strength, a leading distinctive and a leading dynamic. It is what makes Christians the world’s “resident aliens” (Augustine). It is what puts us in the challenging position of being “against the world for the world” (The Hartford Declaration).

Third, there are two useful pictures of what it means to develop critical discernment. One comes from Peter Berger, a Christian, an eminent social scientist, and a renowned analyst of modernity. He warns, “He who sups with the devil of modernity had better have a long spoon.”

The other picture comes from Friederich Nietzsche’s The Twilight of the Idols. “There are,” he wrote, “more idols in the world than there are realities.” Our task, then, is to be iconoclasts, to “sound out idols,” to “pose questions with a hammer,” and see whether many of the things taken for granted in our time are in fact hollow, not real—mere “idols of the age.” Dining with a long spoon, sounding out idols—these are the tasks we will pick up in future articles.

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