Gurus of Growth
Flip on the television set and change the channel to one of the “faith stations” and you will find a plethora of ministers engaged in growing their multimillion dollar churches at the expense of those willing to support them. The superstars of church growth fill the airways as well as stadium sized buildings. At the top of their game, they are all too willing to sell their secrets to “success” through seminars, books, DVDs and private coaching. Make no mistake about it, church growth sells and these gurus of growth peddle everything from individual self-help to marketing techniques. This is about money, or as one church growth pastor told me years ago, it is about “letting God bless you through others.” The problem is that some pastors with an eye to growth are buying into this cousin of the get rich quick scheme.
When I watch men like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen, I have to wonder why they are doing what it is that they do. For instance, Joel Osteen regularly coaches 40,000 people per week at his Lakewood Church in Houston. The cost for the roughly 16,000 seat “sanctuary” renovated to seat the large masses seeking Olsteen’s message was $75 million, according to this Wiki article. I don’t know exactly how much revenue his Lakewood church pulls in annually, but I have read that Osteen makes anywhere from between $43 million to $75 million per year from the money he receives from his congregation, book deals, speaking engagements, and etc. He is certainly letting others “bless” him with considerable amounts of money.
Of course, if one were to ask men like Rick Warren and Joel Osteen why they continue to seek after church growth, you will not get back an answer that they desire more riches. You might hear something about “helping others reach their full potential in Christ,” or that it is all about becoming a “better you,” but they most definitely don’t talk about the money. And, really, why should they? They are rolling in cash and don’t need to even think about money. They are the church growth gurus which some pastors earnestly desire to emulate.
As the proverb says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” About 500 years ago Martin Luther wrote in his introduction to the Large Catechism something that always intrigues me when I read it. He wrote,
“1] We have no slight reasons for treating the Catechism so constantly [in sermons] and for both desiring and beseeching others to teach it, since we see to our sorrow that many pastors and preachers are very negligent in this, and slight both their office and this teaching; some from great and high art (giving their mind, as they imagine, to much higher matters], but others from sheer laziness and care for their paunches, assuming no other relation to this business than if they were pastors and preachers, for their bellies’ sake, and had nothing to do but, to [spend and] consume their emoluments as long as they live, as they have been accustomed to do under the Papacy.
2] And although they have now everything that they are to preach and teach placed before them so abundantly, clearly, and easily, in so many [excellent and] helpful books, and the true Sermones per se loquentes, Dormi secure, Paratos et Thesauros, as they were called in former times; yet they are not so godly and honest as to buy these books, or even when they have them, to look at them or read them. Alas! they are altogether shameful gluttons and servants of their own bellies who ought to be more properly swineherds and dog-tenders than care-takers of souls and pastors” (LC Intro 1, 2).
It is painfully obvious that Luther had no love for these pastors whom he describes as “shameful gluttons and servants of their own bellies.” In reading such a description, one can’t but help think these pastors, “who ought to be more properly swineherds and dog-tenders” than pastors, were living off of the good graces and wealth of their parishes and were not providing sound doctrine to those in their care. These “dog-tenders” pastors were more interested in their own bottom line (caring for their bellies) than they were in teaching the truth of the Gospel to the flocks put in their care. It was this gross failure of pastors to instruct which prompted Luther to write the Catechism and ensure that sound teaching was available to those pastors not looking after their own bellies, but who wanted to feed the sheep of Christ.
What I find curiously similar between the church growth gurus of today, and the “swineherds” pastors of Luther’s day is that the form of currency for which these men are paid is what is of more importance to them than teaching the truth of God’s Word and faithfully delivering the sacraments to those in their congregations.
The apostle Paul writes to Timothy, “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:9-10).
The immediate context of Paul’s words to Timothy concerns false teachers. Paul instructs him about a cause of why some teachers fall away from the truth and turn to preaching and teaching false doctrine. Indeed, these false teachers do so out of envy and covetousness. These “swineherds,” as Luther might call them, think of godliness as a means of gain. Teaching false doctrine is their vehicle to success and they have plenty of ears to itch for increased wealth.
The allure of chasing the church growth rainbow is to find the pot of gold at the end of it. If that weren’t the case, then why don’t the church growth gurus break up their empires? I can’t imagine Rick Warren or Joel Osteen bellying up to their podiums some Sunday and telling the people listening to them to find a new church home. Then again, I don’t think these high priests of church growth will be teaching the truth of the Gospel anytime soon. They tickle ears and build multimillion dollar empires which for all accounts and purposes are their measure of success. Numbers, whether they be in the form of bodies filling seats, or dollar signs, is the idol of choice. Sadly too many will desire the same “growth” as these superstars of dog-tendering and give up sound doctrine, plunging themselves and others into ruin and destruction.