Church Growth: Deliberately Misdiagnosing the Problem?

But that's not my vision!  Attribution:

But that’s not my vision! Attribution:

For three quarters of a century a prosperous industry has grown up around repeatedly solving the problems of reported declines in church giving, attendance and membership (in that order).

The preferred solution in each cycle is as old as the first heresy – Reflect and mimic the culture to give people what they want, and “meet them where they are”. Reheat and recycle with variants:

  1. Promises of prosperity.
    • Epitomized by the likes of Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland and the High Priestess of much of the modern genre, Kathryn Kuhlman.
  2. Promises of group therapy.
    • Championed by the likes of Leadership Network, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Ed Stetzer, Reggie McNeal, Greg Laurie, Ken Blanchard, and Bob Buford.
  3. Promises of deification.
    • Pimped by the likes of Doug Pagitt, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Tony Jones.
  4. Promises of God’s Kingdom here and now.
    • Marketed by Neo Social Gospel types like Mike Breen, Greg Finke, Alan Hirsch, Bill Woolsey, Dave Ferguson, Jim Putman, Michael Frost, Francis Chan, and many cross-over artists from the group therapy movement.
  5. Promises of all the above and more.
    • Foghorned by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Steven Furtick, James MacDonald, Brian Houston, Perry Noble, Andy Stanley, and Pete Wilson.

The collective efforts have produced a remarkable boom in church giving and attendance, contrary to all the hand-wringing about decline.

In America Big Box churches entertain an estimated six million souls every weekend. They pack into vast arenas or mini-me “multi-site” networks. Hyper-segmentation has followed with products for Latinos, bikers, hipsters, over 55s, SWFs, tweens, addicts, ad naseum.

Throughout Africa cities are inundated with Benny Hinn clones luring the gullible and the broken to purchase God’s favor. Nigeria’s “Bishop” TB Joshua reigns supreme with remarkable charisma and stage craft to attract multicultural masses from all over the continent.

In Australasia the likes of Hillsong have flourished and exported themselves worldwide – the apotheosis of multi-site models where you can rock for Jesus via Cape Town, Amsterdam or Moscow, and the money flows to Sydney. Cha-ching!

Asia has hyperchurch manifestations like the Yoido Full Gospel church in Seoul, or the City Harvest Church in Singapore. The former has leaders guilty of fraud, the latter is under criminal investigation.

Skeptical Europe has not escaped the new methods with Anglo-American clones popping up all over the UK.Eastern Europe lies in the shadow of the bizarre and cultic Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for all Nations based in Kiev.

These enterprises have generated avalanches of profits thanks to high pressure selling and a mecca of merchandizing. The organizations are lavishly equipped with infrastructure and resources, and the multi-layered leaderships are wealthy beyond a Pope’s imagination. Individual brands may wax and wane, but the movement prospers endlessly.

Unfortunately, it seems to be a zero sum game. The growth and wealth has come at the expense of bleeding out established churches. If fact, the “solution” churches are factories for minting generations of new unbelievers who have not one clue why it was necessary for Jesus the Christ to be born, live a perfect live, die on a cross, be resurrected, and ascend to Heaven.

The problem with church is not a lack of innovation and cultural alignment. The problem is too many fools in the pulpit and a multitude of pagans in the pews.

There is a famine of the Word such as the shepherd-prophet Amos reported in his terrifying book. We are fond of thinking about God’s judgements in terms of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis, but what could be worse than an absence of His Word?

Analogous to the Ancient Mariner crying out, “Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink”, we have tens of thousands of churches, but fewer and fewer of them offer salvation by grace alone through faith alone. We’ve never had so many Bibles in so many languages in circulation, and yet the men equipped to rightly divide the Word in them is inversely proportional.

This is what innovation in the name of God has brought about. We are witnessing Christianity in exile from the Word.

Martin Luther has a timely reminder for us that “gospel entrepreneurship” is both alien and dangerous: “The church is the work of God’s hands, and His children are His cultivation. “Therefore [God says] command Me. You cannot bring the matter to a successful issue. I will do it. Believe Me.” Ezra and Nehemiah carefully read these words of comfort and consoled the people and the king by means of the Word. Let God handle the matter, He will do it properly. (Luther’s Works, AE 17:129–30)

Not very innovative, that Martin Luther, that Ezra, that Nehemiah.


Church Growth: Deliberately Misdiagnosing the Problem? — 21 Comments

  1. Hyper-segmentation has followed with products for Latinos, bikers, hipsters, over 55s, SWFs, tweens, addicts, ad naseum.


    Once again, an excellent article. You touched upon the “Hyper-segmentation” that exists throughout the CGM community these days. That “small group” mentality has always bothered me, and perhaps I haven’t thought this fully through, but the concept seems to work against “Fellowship.” In other words, we are to come together as a single body to publically make our confession of faith. Segmentation seems to oppose that. Those who divide into small groups seem to be delineating, separating, and therefore, breaking fellowship.

    Perhaps I’m just shooting from the hip, but such efforts have always bothered me. In an effort to become seeker sensitive we somehow harm fellowship by creating a wedge. Therefore, we risk watering down, or eliminating, our unified public confession of faith.

  2. @Randy #1
    Once again, an excellent article. You touched upon the “Hyper-segmentation” that exists throughout the CGM community these days.

    Naturally! We can brag about being “all things to all sorts of people” but in “small groups” we can self select to “people like me” who live in the “right” neighborhood, make the “right” amount of money, or whatever criteria. Those who are deemed not quite “right” can hang on and contribute all they want, until they figure out that they are never going to be welcome on the “winning team”. Then they can drop off, or “suck it up”; it makes no difference to the leaders.

    All this doesn’t have much to do with the Gospel but it makes talking about the “family of God” sound a little hollow to a lot of people. [“Gee, I wonder why they left….” (noticed, maybe, in the annual report.) ]

    This phenomenon isn’t confined to the CGM community.

  3. Thanks, brother, for a timely article again. Why, oh why, does leadership in our church body (some clergy and some lay) keep insisting that we must grow the church? We are met with every cockamamie (sp?) idea, and we are stressed out as we are encouraged to learn every new technique, and to put into place each new paradigm. And if the Lord does not cause His Church to grow (quantitatively), it becomes the fault of, mostly, the pastor. He, in turn, blames the congregation. And then no one can get along because the very people who are supposed to work together under Christ find themselves full of resentment toward one another.

    I recently studied Hebrews 11 again, praying for wisdom and insight as God spoke to me through His Word. I did not read about having to grow His Kingdom! I did not read about having to do a bunch of “new” and “novel” stuff. I did read about holy men and women who went before us in the faith who lived and died in the holy faith! The Lord gave His means of grace for the purpose of creating and sustaining faith in us! What else does He want from us? In the same way, I am prayerfully studying through the Revelation again, and again I see constant themes of the world’s evil, people’s participation in that evil, God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil, and the glorious heaven which awaits those who die in the faith.

    May it be that all of the people in Christ’s Church will learn to relax in holy faith, speak of Christ over and over in our daily living, observe with joy those who do come to faith and hope in Christ with us, keep a vision of God’s mercy and grace which work faith in us as in others, and endure in the faith which God gives until the very End. Come, Lord Jesus!

  4. @Randy #1 Thanks, Randy, and you are exactly right. You’ll notice that 99% of the church growth “mission” is in dense urban areas. They are not plowing and sowing new fields – as Pr. Noland pointed out previously, it’s a gigantic exercise in sheep stealing. Yes, they’re very good at marketing, but I don’t think the early church ever considered dividing its congregations into affinity groups.

  5. @wineonthevines #2 Rev. Fisk really nailed it, and I think his comments reinforce my point that these church growthers are actually an industry of unbelief.

    We need a study from Barna that traces the lifecycle of the average megachurch attendee from “on fire” start to burned out ember.

  6. @Rev. Alan J. Wollenburg #4 Amen! Preach the Word and leave it do its work as God says it does. Congregations go through seasons of growth and decline for reasons of God’s choosing. We must ask nothing more of our faithful pastors than we see in 2 Timothy 4:1-5.

  7. Beautiful summation of a contemporary truth! This famine has been spreading in the NW for over 20 years, that I know of.
    I am reminded though, that the future of the church has never been in the hands of men! God raises up , and He tears down.
    I love the words of the ” Te Deum..”may I never be confounded!” Thank you for this fine post !

  8. Tim Wood : Yes, they’re very good at marketing, but I don’t think the early church ever considered dividing its congregations into affinity groups.

    Great point, Tim. Can you imagine:

    “Those who like building things, over here.”
    “Date connoisseurs, over there.”
    “Donkey lovers, come with me. We have a special guest today. Balaam brought his donkey and will start a new series entitled, “talking asses are the best thing since sliced manna.”

  9. Does the simple and plain fact that the Bible says practically NOTHING about how many are supposed to be in a church dawn upon these people? Do they not understand the difference between descriptive and prescriptive passages (that just because the book of Acts records three thousand people converted in one setting doesn’t mean that every church is guaranteed to convert three thousand people)?

    And do they not understand (or care) that when you start emphasizing numbers, you’re taking a dangerous step in the direction of pragmatism?

  10. While I share your revulsion with Church Growth theology and practice, I can’t help but think that some of the objections are mere sour grapes and an attempted sanctification of failure. Churches should grow – in the knowlege and grace of God. Perhaps some of our numerical decline reflects that this is not the case?

  11. So incredibly frustrating (and sad) for an ex-Evangelical “Newtheran” like me who thought he found a home on the Saved By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone, In Christ Alone Shores Proclaimed By The Confessional Lutheran Church after having sailed the Works Righteousness Waters of American Evangelicalism for the past several years.

    For me, I always think about how our contemporary “Church Growthers” — by their very own methodologies, models, and measures for success — are forced to view Jesus’ own earthly ministry as an “utter failure” since He didn’t draw the kind of numbers they believe He should have (John 6:22-71). And yet, how many of them would ever admit to that publicly?

    Thank you all for your faithful confession here!

    Grace And Peace,


  12. Why the false dichotomy between “seeker-friendly (a marketing ploy)” and scripturally-commanded friendliness towards seekers? If our churches were really safe places and hospitals for sinners, would the marketeers turning them into circuses and needle exchanges be as successful as they are? We need a lttle more honest self-examination and less sanctification of failure.

  13. @JeffreyKRadt #11 Jeff, don’t despair, it will get fixed one way or another. As a fellow convert, I’m sure you appreciate the genuine creativity and innovation of the new wave of Confessional pastors who have brought thousands of us into the one true faith in the last 5-7 years in the U.S. and Canada. They never set out to be “missional”, they just did their jobs and God has used that to repent us and grant us the faith that saves.

  14. J. Dean :Does the simple and plain fact that the Bible says practically NOTHING about how many are supposed to be in a church dawn upon these people?

    I have long found it interesting that the lost sheep in the parable that Jesus told was one of 100. Would the shepherd have noticed that it was missing if the flock had been much larger? It would not be valid exegesis to draw any hard and fast conclusions from this about the proper size of a single pastor’s congregation, but it nevertheless seems like something worth pondering.

  15. @Tim Wood #5
    Dense *sub*urban areas, in the West, at least, ’cause that’s where the $ is, and everyone knows it takes $ to grow the “Church”.

  16. Kirk,
    Please check out the Oct 29 Issues etc program. It’s a real eye-opener as to what’s going on in the unbelieving world, etc

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