The Utter Failure of the Church Growth Movement

Church growthIn what had been touted for decades as the movement able to rescue the American Christian Church from extinction, The Church Growth Movement (CGM) has itself become extinct.  Yes, the Church Growth Movement has lost its movement.  It had been suspect from the outset as making claims which many challenged were unbiblical and permitted authorities and practices from outside Scripture.  A look at the timetable of the movement up to today provides the shocking conclusion that this movement has never delivered what it promised and even guaranteed.

Since writing a book on the subject in 2002[1] and then casually following it up till around 2012, I recently looked into it in order to see where it was today.  The results were staggering: it’s become virtually extinct.  It has been an “utter failure!”  It has failed Christ’s Church in two major ways.  First, it has failed to remain faithful to Scripture and secondly, it has failed to provide the true growth in new church members promised.

I am but one of many who have contended in publications that the Church Growth Movement goes off the Scriptural rails at its fundamental outset by not being centered on Scriptural principles but on business and marketing principles.[2]  This charge can be summarized in this way: “Marketing is an overarching approach that seeks to please the customer, proclaiming the customer king.  True theology can have no customer sovereignty.  The precious Gospel must be sovereign.”[3]

This marketing orientation was brought into the CGM in the 1960’s when its founder, former missionary in India, Donald McGavran, began educating pastors at Fuller Seminary in California about using research to increase church membership.  Hence in short, it made overarching concepts and techniques its focus which are not found in Scripture front and center in how Christ’s Church should and ought to increase numerically.  Thus, CGM revolves around utilizing market research in order to expand the church’s market.  This became its driving orientation, what needed to change within the church’s approach to non-believers.  “Change” became the movement’s mantra, looking for strategies and tactics to meet unmet non-believers’ felt needs.  All of this speaks not to Scriptural statements but to marketing concepts.[4]

Central to what has been labeled by CGM as a needed paradigm shift is the pitting of the mission versus the message.  It sets in opposition the proclaiming the Gospel in its purity via the means of grace against getting this Gospel out, i.e. the Great Commission of Matthew 28.[5]  This unfairly and unbiblically posits an “either/or” situation where it should be a “both/and.”  However, this being said, the mission can never be placed more important than being faithful to the proclamation of the Gospel in its purity and the administration of the Sacraments as the Lord has mandated.[6]

Change is the mantra of the CGM and so they have emphasized this.  The Gospel and the means of grace have unfortunately come under this fervor for change for growth’s sake, purporting they need reprogramming, re-engineering, retooling.  Dr. Norman Nagel responds well: “No one admits to adjusting Christ. “It’s the Gospel we’re working on.”  The apostle won’t let them get away with that.  Adjusted Gospel is adjusted Christ.  And for an adjusted Gospel, you don’t really finally need Christ.  The apostle goes on to make that quite clear.  Can you talk about a Gospel if Jesus had not been crucified?  Then the stumbling block of the cross had been removed.”[7]  Again, if your main target is on the unchurched, your Gospel proclamation will shift away from pure Gospel proclamation to whatever they, the listener will accept and tolerate.  The Gospel purely preached is the only power of God for salvation to anyone of anytime (Romans 1:16-17).

On to the second significant failure of the CGM to break its promises to numerically grow the church.  Even their major market researcher, George Barna, has researched and admitted this: “Claims of prolific church growth have been grossly exaggerated; not only are most churches not increasing in size, but those that are expanding are doing so at the expense of other churches.  More than 80 percent of the adults who get counted as new adherents and thus as part of the growth statistic are really just transplants from other churches—religious consumers in search of the perfect, or at least more exciting or enjoyable, church experience.  Disturbingly little church growth is attributable to new converts.  All in all, it was not a good decade for church growth.”[8][1]   Barna deduces from this shocking conclusion that the CGM must even find new and more unique radical approaches to growing the church.  And so it has, in some radical directions as exemplified by C. Peter Wagner.    C. Peter Wagner of Fuller Theological Seminary has been touted as the standard bearer for CGM after McGavran’s death.  He has been acknowledged as influential in bringing more of the charismatic/Pentecostal element into the movement.  Going even further, he has been the main proponent of the New Apostolic Reformation.[9]  This movement does what prior to the apostles has never been done before: confess and practice that the office of the apostle in Ephesians 4:11-12 should be filled in our time.[10]  Yet another example of failure #1, unfaithfulness to Scripture!

While Wagner’s new CGM direction can be rather easily deemed as not just out of the proverbial box, but terribly outside the Bible, there are other new directions for CGM of a more rational theological nature.  This group of CGM advocates has even moved in a whole new direction and emphasis which their new name implies: Great Commission Research Network.[11]  The GCRN states that they believe the CGM has moved too far from McGavran’s initial focus on mission and wish to return to those roots.[12]

Not only has the CGM continually confessed that it has failed in its guarantees to numerically grow the church, but that most of its growth has not been from the unchurched, but from Transfer Growth, or what some have termed as “stealing sheep.”[13]  Rearranging the sheep from one congregation to another is not what the CGM guaranteed nor delivered.

Among us, LCMS President Harrison researched and published his findings that there was no discernible difference between CGM dominated districts and more Confessional districts over the last decades.[14]  This movement originated from outside us and imported within us by pastors primarily studying at Fuller Seminary.  Among us it has divided our synod and has not performed the promised numerical growth.  It has been an utter failure in remaining faithful to Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions.  We should jettison it and its unbiblical foundation and return to our biblical roots of the precious means of grace being practiced faithfully among us, and trusting the Lord of the Church for growth, where and when He wishes (John 3:8).



[1] Rodney E. Zwonitzer, Testing the Claims of Church Growth, (St. Louis: CPH, 2002).

[2] Ibid., 11-23 and my article “Is The Church A  Business?” found at:  (accessed on June 29, 2016)

[3][3] Ibid., 9.

[4] See the above references for more on this point.

[5] Ibid., 35-40 and 115-126.

[6] See Augsburg Confession, VII.

[7] Norman E. Nagel, Selected Sermons of Norman Nagel, (St. Louis: CPH, 2004).

[8] George Barna and Mark Hatch, Boiling Point: It Only Takes One Degree; Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century (Ventura, Calif.: Gospel Light/Regal Books, 2001), 236.

[9] See his books on the subject, e.g. Church Quake!: The Explosive Power of the New Apostolic Reformation

[10] See Thomas Winger’s take on this in his CPH Commentary on Ephesians, page 449-466.

[11] For more see:  accessed on July 1, 2016.

[12] See Ed Stetzer’s analysis here: accessed on July 1, 2016.

[13] For example see William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Church’s Hidden Problems of Transfer Growth, (Downers Grove, IL: 2001).

[14] 2016 National Convention Workbook, President’s Report, 2.

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