THE MYTH OF "GROWTH" IN THE
CHURCH GROWTH MOVEMENT
by David Dunlap
Today the Church Growth Movement finds itself in the midst of a crisis. Its leaders are admitting that the movement has gone awry. Recent studies reveal that its very techniques and principles are ineffective in producing genuine church growth. Since its inception twenty-four years ago, the movement has promised rapid numerical growth to American churches. Through researching the sociological, demographic, and psychological needs of people groups, an approach to numerical church growth was proposed. Full length books hot off the press with flashy titles such as "Your Church Can Grow" and "Church Growth: State of the Art" have popularized these ideas. Detailed and documented studies verifying the effectiveness of this approach have found their way into popular Christian magazines and journals. In numerous Church Growth Conferences, Christian leaders and pastors have sung the praises of these techniques and testified with glowing reports about how such methods have led to remarkable growth in their churches. Yet many sincere Christian leaders have remained cautious. Others with spiritual discernment have pointed to gaping theological holes in the Church Growth Movement’s techniques and results. Nevertheless, many assemblies and individuals have been ensnared by these seemingly successful and yet problematic evangelistic methods.
Failed Promises of the Church Growth Movement
A growing number of serious Christians have begun to question the promises and claims of the Church Growth Movement. They have asked themselves, "Do these methods promote true numerical church growth?" Another crucial question that many have asked is, "Do these techniques bring unsaved men and women to conversion in the Lord Jesus Christ?" The most current research indicates that the Church Growth Movement is alarmingly ineffective at leading the unsaved to salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Researchers point out that since the Church Growth Movement began in 1973, the churches in America do not show any increase in numerical growth. Church researcher George Barna, representative of those who recognize this situation, writes,
Since 1980, there has been ‘no growth’ in the proportion of the adult population that can be classified as ‘born again’ Christian. The propor-tion of born again Christians has remained constant at 32%, despite the fact that churches and para-church organizations have spent billions of dollars on evangelism. More than 10,000 hours of evangelistic television programming have been broadcast, in excess of 5,000 new Christian books have been published, and more than 1,000 radio stations carry Christian programming. Yet despite such widespread opportunities for exposure to the Gospel, there has been no discernable growth in the size of the Christian body.1
This growing body of evidence casts serious doubts on the effectiveness of the Church Growth Movement and its techniques in producing numerical growth in North America.
Evangelistic Growth or Transfer Growth?
Considering the recent evidence that these principles are not contributing to church growth, to what then can we attribute the apparent growth in many churches? Again the Church Growth methodologists have come under attack. Observers point out that church growth techniques do not produce conversion growth, but unfortunately draw away faithful churchgoers from smaller churches through slick marketing strategy. The most recent research seems to bear out this distressing situation. Author Ken Sidey writes,
Perhaps church growth’s greatest challenge in North America comes from research that shows that more than 80 percent of all the growth taking place in growing churches comes through transfer, not conversion. The statistic strikes at the heart. Whether by computer or spiritual power, the church growth movement must improve on those numbers.2
In a revealing study of 3,000 people who joined 20 evangelical churches in Calgary, Alberta, Canada researchers determined that 70 percent were evangelicals who transferred from other evangelical churches.3 The growing trend of transfer growth and the powerlessness of the North American evangelical church to reach the unsaved has infected smaller church denominations as well the largest. In 1988 a denominational newspaper for the Southern Baptist Convention revealed the evangelistic results for all churches of that denomination and the results were shocking. This denomination, which is the largest protestant group in the United States, reported in 1987 that within its 37,000 churches, there were on the average only 2 converts baptized for every church. The newspaper further reported that 50,000 were baptized who had transferred from other churches.4 Again, in the largest protestant denomination in our land, the transfer of believers from one church to another is one of the largest contributing factors to numerical growth. The Church Growth Movement is now beginning to speak about failure.
Since 1973 millions of dollars have been poured into this movement and the offense of the cross has been all but eliminated. Church Growth theology has left many sincere believers disillusioned through its empty promises of spiritual growth. Now, in frank honesty, the ineffectiveness of its principles is being admitted. Leaders within the Church Growth Movement itself are haltingly, yet with candor, admitting the failure of the movement to produce conversion. C. Peter Wagner, a leading author and spokesman for the Church Growth Movement remarks,
I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with the church-growth principles we’ve developed, or the evangelistic techniques we are using. Yet somehow they don’t seem to work,… maybe something else is needed.5
False Assumptions and Unsound Solutions
Many have pointed to an underlying assumption of the Church Growth Movement as the reason for its failure. The assumption is that people are disinterested in the traditional faithful preaching of the Gospel and proclamation of the Word of God. The solution that Church Growth advocates propose is to draw the unsaved into churches through attractive entertainment and to soften the offense of the cross. Growth Churches have used "jazzercise," drama, gospel magic, comedians, rock concerts, and sensitivity workshops to attract people to their churches. Yet real evangelism, real discipleship, and real outreach are simply not taking place on any serious level, as the statistics demonstrate. Church Growth congregations are increasing by simply rearranging the saints. Many evangelicals are merely playing "musical churches," moving from smaller traditional churches to larger more "exciting" churches. The danger is obvious. The larger "mega-church’s" increased growth will come to a screeching halt when the smaller churches begin in large number to close their doors. Will this happen in the near future? The fact is that there are roughly 350,000 churches in the United States and 90% of them report an average attendance of 200 or fewer worshippers per week. Most of them cannot afford any decrease in attendance over the next 10 years, or many will be forced to close. Will this actually happen? – Evangelical researchers think so. One church researcher has predicted that during the decade of 1990 to the year 2000, about 100,000 evangelical churches will close.6
Are the assumptions on which the Church Growth Movement is built a sound basis for spiritual growth? The Church Growth Movement is in the untenable position of calling an increase in the number of churchgoers, "church growth." A church may be increasing in numbers and to many may seem to be successful, but at the same time be utterly destitute of spiritual life and health. Above all else, genuine growth and renewal must be concerned with the spiritual condition of the church, and not just its programs, music and approach. Spiritual growth involves much more than humanly devised techniques. It involves sound Bible teaching, prayer, exhortation, sorrow for sin, spiritual Christ-centered worship, and a compassion for the lost. A New Testament church should not be satisfied with merely cosmetic and superficial changes, while the greater issues are being neglected. Before a church can take into consideration any of the Church Growth principles proposed, it must first come to the point of understanding the important doctrines concerning the holiness of God, the need for a right relationship with God through confession and forgiveness, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Human cleverness will never meet the dire spiritual needs of the heart. Spiritual solutions must be proposed for spiritual problems.
Are the Church Growth principles the solution for the church? To restate the words of C. Peter Wagner, these principles do not work; something else is sorely needed. May it also be humbly stated that what is needed is clear and powerful preaching of the Word of God, combined with the deep conviction of sin, produced by the Holy Spirit, and undergirded by an assembly of believers on their knees in believing prayer. The history of the Christian church has vividly taught us that all church growth and genuine spiritual transformation of the unsaved comes through the faithful and powerful preaching of God’s word. The fundamental of consistent prayer, faithful preaching, earnest personal witness, fellowship with God, and holiness in our walk are essential to biblical evangelism. Where these are absent the church will be powerless. In 1939 G. Campbell Morgan, the beloved author and preacher, gave the church of the 1990’s a needed warning when he wrote,
When a technique is necessary to get people to listen to the gospel there will be failure. That is not the method of Christ. To build an institute in connection with the church, and provide all kinds of entertainment for the young people, in order that they may come to the Bible classes, is to be foredoomed to failure.7
Biblical church growth has always been founded on the principle that all spiritual work can be achieved only by spiritual men and women who employ spiritual methods. May the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ soon return to this biblical mandate. ¢
1George Barna, Marketing the Church, (Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1990).
2Ken Sidey, "Church Growth Fine Tunes its Formulas," Christianity Today, (June 24, 1991), p. 46.
3Denyse O’Leary, "Study Deplores Supermarket Religion," Moody Monthly, (April, 1988), p. 97.
4"Revived Again: Student Challenged to Cast Nets," Southwestern News, (Nov. 1988), p. 8.
5Sidey, op. cit., p. 46.
6William Hull, Power Religion, (Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1992), p. 153.
7G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According To Mark, (Oliphants, London, 1956), p. 177.
This article was taken from the "Bible & Life" newsletter and was used by permission of the author.
David Dunlap is involved in a preaching and teaching ministry in Land O' Lakes, FL. He also writes the "Bible & Life" newsletter five times a year.
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