I am convinced that the church growth movement is harmful for the church. Some of you may ask “What is the church growth movement?“ It is a way of “doing” church that arose in the 1970’s and 80’s. By the middle of the 80’s it was being taught at the St. Louis Seminary.
On a benign level it is the application of common sense to the parish in order to make sure that we are doing our best for the Lord’s church and with an eye toward growth. For instance, if people are driving right past your church on a Sunday morning because your parking lot is full, it would be good to rally the parishioners around the goal of raising funds to increase parking.
The church growth movement harms the church when it extends the reach of reason to the point of compromising the Scriptural and Confessional approach to the Lord’s church. This faulty way of applying church growth methods took hold among the LCMS movers and shakers as a natural filling of the void left when the historical-critical method of understanding the Bible (liberalism’s use of reason to question the truth of the Scriptures) was debunked in the synod in the early 1970’s. It is as if a certain element in the church learned from the battle for the Bible that it was wrong to apply reason to critique Scripture but that they did not fully realize nor have the depth of thought to reject the use of the whore reason (one of Luther’s favorite phrases) when it is applied to church practice. This move was aided by the American’s love for its only indigenous philosophy – Pragmatism, which asserts that whatever works is true. Countless parishes in the LCMS today are organized around this false use of reason and practicality.
Here are five common examples of how this is practiced in the LCMS today and simple Scriptural truths that rebuke and correct such false uses of reason.
- The tiresome and unending over-emphasis on personal evangelism. There is not even one single Scripture in the New Testament that mandates or even exhorts one to personal, lay evangelism. (If you can find one, please share it with us in the comment section below.) Another way of saying this is to reject the false assertion that the main thing the church is to do is to grow. No, the main thing the church is to do is to be steadfast and faithful (Colossians 1:23).
- We need to love people to Christ (in other words, doctrine and teaching turn people off). The Church is not about loving people to Christ – the Bible says we are to love the brothers and respect the world. It is an error of liberalism to supplant the preaching of the forgiveness of sins with peace and justice for all. Search the Scriptures and you will see that when the Bible speaks of acts of mercy it overwhelmingly is speaking about love for the brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. A few years ago I read through the entire Scriptures with an eye toward recording all of the incidents where Christians were exhorted to show mercy and compassion. Clearly over 90% of the passages were about showing mercy to those in the body of Christ. The classic statement of this is in I Peter 2:17 where it says “honor everyone, love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” Our concern for the world is expressed in honor. Our concern for fellow Christians is expressed in love. This applies to the worn out passage about the priesthood of all believers. It is not so much about personal evangelism as it is about being respectful in the culture. Read I Peter 2 carefully and you will see that we are to be respectful and decent in the world so that the pagans cannot hold our disrespectful behavior against the Gospel that is preached from our pulpits. It is hardly an exhortation to knock on doors for Jesus. (Knocking on doors is not necessarily a bad idea – it is just not emphasized in Scripture like it is by the synodocrats of the last decade.)
- The Bible teaches that where two or three are gathered together there is a small group. Actually, where two are three are gathered together, according to Christ’s own word, is not a small group but is an assembly of the congregation with the authority to excommunicate someone. The passage of note is Matthew 18:15-20. Yes, this is the infamous Matthew 18 passage. Verse 20 speaks about two or three being gathered and it is included in the passage on rebuking sin. It is not an exhortation to small group meetings. Allow me to rescue it from infamy and bring it back down to the voters assembly where it belongs. Do the math. When your brother sins against you and will not repent go get one more and give it another try. When he still won’t repent go get one or more in addition and give it one more try. Now we are starting to see how Jesus intends us to understand “where two or three are gathered.” The three or more are the church. In verse seventeen Jesus tells the church that they have the authority to treat someone like a tax collector (excommunicate them) and since that is a scary prospect he encourages them by saying “wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name to do this scary thing, I am there with you.” The misuse of this passage to support “small group ministry” is a classic case of the church growth movement abusing Scripture. I cannot tell you how many times I have had people throw this verse at me in defense of small groups. Church growth advocates don’t like excommunication because it tends to shrink the church. But Christ’s words about two or three gathering together are about exactly that, gathering the church together to make the last attempt to love the brother via excommunication (i.e. to wake them up out of the slumber of their unrepented sin).
- Doctrine divides and turns people off. Touching people’s emotions works better than teaching them doctrine. This of course is the principle that is used to support the singing of popular American Evangelical songs in place of the old, boring, stuffy doctrinal hymns out of the hymnal. I encourage you to read the epistles of Paul and do a comparison of the number of times Paul encourages people to learn and grow in knowledge (doctrine) versus the number of times he encourages them to grow in their emotional attachment to Jesus. (Does he ever do that? I can’t think of a single case but I am happy to learn and I am sure you will be happy to teach in the comment section below.)
- Everyone is a Minister. The Pastor is a player-coach and his vocation is essentially the same as every other Christ. Pastors are unique. Their work is unique. There is not a single New Testament Scripture about the laity teaching (the proper work of the pastor) but there are dozens of Scriptures about pastors being given the vocation of preacher/teacher (not to mention the first two entries in the Small Catechism’s table of duties). This does not mean that we are not to have an educated laity. To the contrary, the preachers are teaching the laity. The laity are to learn (see #4 above). Learning doctrine is crucial for the church to be faithful. It’s just that everyone is not a teacher in the church.
I did not go searching for these principles. They began to strike me in the last twenty years or so once I took off the synodcrat glasses and started reading the Scriptures for what they say and in the manner that they are read by the Confessors.
BTW, speaking of reading the Scriptures as the Confessors did, here is a sixth bonus debunked principle:
- Predestination is a harmful, dangerous topic that ought to be avoided. Do a word search on “predestined,” “election,” and the like in your Bible and you will find that it is a prominent and important topic in the Scriptures. Read Luther’s Bondage of the Will and you will begin to see how false and bankrupt the American Evangelical approach is to Scripture, conversion, growing the church and Christian piety in general. Sadly the American Evangelical approach has overrun the minds of many of our pastors. The Scriptural teaching of eternal election properly highlights the monergism of God and leaves our pragmatic approach to life in the church in the lurch. We are not to “do church” in a practical way. We are to do church in a faithful way. We preach his word to those that like it and those that like it not and God sorts out the rest. This does not entirely rule out practicality or growth, but growth and practicality do not order the way we do things in Christ’s church.