The Famine Of The Word And The Failures Of The Church Growth Movement & The Emergent Church

So how has the church responded to the decline in church attendance in America? Rev. Terry Forke has just released an excellent article titled, “A Famine of the Word.” CLICK HERE to read the article in its entirety.

In his article he expounds on three movements within American Christianity to combat the problem of declining church attendance. He shares that the first response happened in the 1960’s with Dr. James Kennedy’s Evangelism Explosion.

Following the efforts of Evangelism Explosion, Forke identifies the Church Growth Movement as emerging in the 70’s and continuing up to the 90’s. As most of us know, the Church Growth Movement brought us all sorts of sociological and scientific methodological principles in order to help the church increase in attendance. The movement brought forth books like, “Purpose Driven Church,” by Rick Warren and “Becoming a Contagious Christian,” by Bill Hybels.

Following the Church Growth Movement, Forke identifies another movement called the Emergent Church. He shares that the Emergent Church Movement was in response to the failures of the Church Growth Movement to turn around declining numbers. The Emergent Church Movement shifted from trying to attract people to come to the church to getting the church to go to the people. It was a shift from an attractional model to a missional model.

So the question arises for us now in 2012, after 50-60 years of trying to turn around declining numbers, has all of this worked? Forke comments on this in his article in respect to his own church denomination saying,

“Has the work of these three efforts on behalf of the Church caused a mass movement of the people of this nation to return to the Lord? The statistics previously quoted demonstrate that the Christian Church in the United States of America continues to decline in membership and attendance to this day. The cold hard truth is that, statistically speaking, the Evangelistic, Church Growth, and Emerging Missional movements have had little impact on the attendance and membership numbers of the Church.”

Forke is not the only one that has addressed the failure of these evangelism/growth efforts. Bill Hybel himself responded to a qualitative survey done of his seeker-sensitive church, Willow Creek, saying,

“Some of the stuff that we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back, it wasn’t helping people that much.”

Hybel goes on to say,

“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between services, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

While the church has been ambitiously trying to turn the trends of declining church attendance something more disturbing has subtly emerged. Christian Smith and Melinda Denton state,

“We have come with some confidence to believe that a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that it is seriously connected to the actual historical tradition… It is not so much that U.S. Christianity is being secularized. Rather, more subtly, Christianity is either degenerating into a pathetic version of itself or, more significantly, Christianity is actively being colonized and displaced by quite a different religious faith.” [1]

For myself, I have actually drank the Kool Aid of the Church Growth Movement and the Emergent Church Movement. I was a part of a church that embraced Rick Warren’s book as a map for evangelism success. I have flirted extensively with the quote-unquote, “hip and supposedly historically authentic emergent church models.” My experiences with both of these movements ended working me up in a frenzy and frankly distracted me from the Gospel. Furthermore, I was so fixated on reversing the tide of church decline and church growth that I failed to think about the quality of Christianity that I was promoting. I regrettably placed quantity ahead of quality. Douglas John Hall comments on this saying,

“I am personally not very much worried about the reduction in numbers where Christianity…[is] concerned. I am far more concerned about the qualitative factor: what kind of Christianity… are we talking about?” [2]

My friends, while we should be certainly concerned about the decline of numbers in the American Church, we can never forget the Word. Regrettably, I believe that the American Church has embraced quantity at the expense of quality, which has led to a famine of the Word.

I believe the words of the Apostle Paul to the Pastor Timothy are most appropriate for us to heed to and receive,

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (2 Timothy 4:1-5)

Brothers and sister one thing is for sure, the Church cannot truly grow where the Word of God is not present. Furthermore, the quality and content of the Church is dependent upon the Word. Therefore, proclaim the Word in season and out of season. Whether the church grows or declines, we preach the Word. Whether it is received or rejected, we proclaim the Word. Whether it is popular or politically incorrect, we proclaim the Word. We proclaim the Word for the sake of quality and quantity.

Sola Scriptura

1. Quoted in Kenda Creasy Dean’s book, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church.” (Oxford Press, 2010), 3.
2. Ibid.

Originally Posted on Pastor Matt’s blog,  PM Notes

About Pastor Matt Richard

Rev. Dr. Matthew Richard is the pastor at Zion Lutheran Church of Gwinner, ND. He was previously a Senior Pastor in Sidney, Montana, an Associate Pastor of Spiritual Care and Youth Ministries in Williston, North Dakota, and an Associate Pastor of Children and Youth in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He received his undergraduate degree from Minot State University, ND and his M.Div. from Lutheran Brethren Seminary, MN. His doctor of ministry thesis, from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO, was on exploring the journey of American Evangelicals into Confessional Lutheran thought. Pastor Richard is married to Serenity and they have two children. He enjoys fishing, pheasant hunting, watching movies, blogging, golfing, spending time with his family and a good book with a warm latte! To check out more articles by Pastor Matt you can visit his personal blog at:


The Famine Of The Word And The Failures Of The Church Growth Movement & The Emergent Church — 11 Comments

  1. Great post.

    I’ve wrestled with this in my own past -and I have concluded that the Gospel always appears to be weak, fragile, and on the brink of extinction. Whatever the replacement is: gnostism, arianism, pelagianism, socinianism, pietism, rationalism, secularism etc etc.

    Consider CH Spurgeon – still widely influential among many different denominations and considered a high water mark by many – yet his late years were marked by the “down grade” controversy – how the churches of England were rapidly sliding down a slippery slope to apostacy. How is this different than what we hear today from all those who clamor “reclaim America for Christ?”

    How many of us look back to Walther – and what did they deal with? A church that was Lutheran in name only and had decended into schisms and cults. Or the reformers – during their time the little of christianity left was under the very real threat of Muslim conquest without and schisms and false teachers within. Dr. Martin Luther died knowing that following his death all of his enemies would twist his words to fit their meaning. 400 years later in a display of unity, a Nazi leader shakes hands with the official leader of the German church over his grave.

    It wasn’t any better in the early church – the fathers were constantly attacked by one heresy or another all the while being persecuted and murdered.

    This idea of a golden age when all of society is a poster example Christian has never existed. All there was then were people who believed the Word and people who didn’t. There used to be wolves in sheeps clothing pretending to believe while secretly seeking their own ends – just like there are today. There were people back then saying the Word wasn’t enough, but you still need this, that or the other. The Apostles even had to teach against it! We don’t have more of a sinful nature today than people did then. Original sin hasn’t grown. It’s easy to think things were better back then now that the old guys are all buried and we can’t see their faults anymore or experience their struggles.

    Our human nature wants to build empires. We want to build big organizations that will outlive us and continue to get bigger and better until Christ comes. We want a theology of glory even when we know better. Instead we get Christ in humility and Christ in weakness. We get what the true church has always gotten – Christ crucified.

  2. Many thanks for posting this piece by President Forke. Our LCMS has become like the woman who spent all her living on doctors and was not made well. About 20 years ago while in Detroit, Roger Pitelko gave a presentation to our tri circuit. He likened the LCMS to people at the end of a long parade. In front of us are the Evangelicals who buy one program after another, then discard it and we pick it up as if it were gold. President Forke has put into words what I have long held. Thank you.

  3. A very good piece, and very true.

    It’s interesting to note that nowhere in the Bible are we as Christians commanded to be concerned with the numerical size of our congregations. Sound doctrine is always first and foremost above all else, and the gospel is always at the center of it. If growth occurs, great, but it’s a by-product at best, not a be-all-end-all goal to strive after.

  4. J. Dean :
    A very good piece, and very true.
    It’s interesting to note that nowhere in the Bible are we as Christians commanded to be concerned with the numerical size of our congregations. Sound doctrine is always first and foremost above all else, and the gospel is always at the center of it. If growth occurs, great, but it’s a by-product at best, not a be-all-end-all goal to strive after.

    <snark on>… unless of course there is a big building and an enormous mortgage to a financier who has the ear of your DP involved. Then, of course, the important thing is the number of butts in the seats contributing to the coffers and any “decline” in giving or membership (calculated in terms of lack of growth toward the goal of paying off the mortgage) is a failure.</snark off>

  5. Dear Pastor Richard,

    Thanks for posting the link to the superb essay by District President Terry Forke titled “A Famine of the Word”!

    “A Famine of the Word” deserves wide reading by all people in our synod. I recommend that readers of this blog download Forke’s essay, print it out, read it, and file it for future reference. Electronic copies could be sent to your Circuit Counselor, District President, district executives, and synodical executives (hint, hint, hint) 🙂 It is good Rx for what ails us all!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  6. “God Removed His Word from Israel”

    ““Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land—
    not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall
    wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of
    the Lord, but they shall not find it.”


    I respectfully think we should start here first:

    The Gospel as a Passing Downpour

    by August Pieper

    Luther’s exhortation to “his beloved Germans,” in which he pleads so lovingly and at the same time threatens so terribly. It is an urgent appeal for them to most earnestly make use of the gospel, which he preached to them, as their only and ultimate opportunity to attain the eternal salvation of God.

    In order that we may be able to conveniently read over and thoroughly examine these words of Luther in their context, we once again set them here in their entirety:

    Beloved Germans, buy while the market is close at hand! Gather while the sun is shining and while there is good weather! Make use of God’s grace and Word while it is here! For you should know this: God’s Word and grace is a passing downpour,2 which does not return to where it has already been. It has been with the Jews; but what’s lost is lost, and they now have nothing. Paul brought it to Greece; what’s lost is lost, and they now have the Turks. Rome and Latin-speaking regions have also had it; what’s lost is lost, and they now have the pope. And you Germans dare not think that you will have it forever, for the ingratitude and disdain will not let it remain. Therefore take hold and hang on tightly, while you are able to grab and to hold. Lazy hands are bound to have a hard year.3 (Letter to the Town-Councilmen, Volume 10, 464.)4

    Is Luther right? — What does he really mean? He starts from the assumption, that all his students and teachers know not only the universal saving counsel of God in its essential points (1Ti 2:4ff, Jn 3:1-18) and the institution of the holy ministry according to Matthew 28:18-20, but also what the Lord himself says in Luke 24:46-49 about the temporal progression of the preaching of the gospel among peoples: “and beginning at Jerusalem.” This sequence has been confirmed throughout history from the beginning and will be followed until the Last Day. — That is what Luther meant.

  7. Another factor in the decline of mainline protestant
    denominations is the emphasis of social issues being
    preached from the pulpit. People do not attend
    worship services if the sermons are about making
    the environment more green, or the civil rights of
    the gay community.

    The LCMS is not considered mainline protestant, but
    we need to have healthy parishes where God’s Word
    is preached in truth and clarity/law and gospel.
    The preaching and teaching of God’s Word rather than
    man’s agenda will bear fruit.

  8. Meanwhile,my church LCMS, is probing the possibility of renting the building to pentecostals for services to raise funds-with the blessing of the district according to some members!?!.Time for a transfer and a call for resignations as 2 other LCMS churches have done it.We were told.Hope and pray that this is not true in any church or district.Good money to be made says an elder

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