STRESS AND THE CHURCH GROWTH MOVEMENT

Always before I critiqued the church growth movement on the basis of its underlying theology and methods. Something new, however, has come to my attention.

Let me be clear, I have no documentation to support what I am saying here. There may never be any documentation. What follows are reflections based upon dozens of e-mail letters I have received over the course of several years from people directly involved in, or formerly involved with, the church growth movement.

My thesis: the church growth movement is hazardous to one's mental, spiritual and/or physical health.

Church growth techniques are demanding, time consuming and costly. For instance, banks of phones must be set up, callers trained, phone lists secured, and then the telephoning goes on for a lengthy period of time. Brochures must be drawn up and printed, mailed out and, in many cases, followed up via the telephone. Small group leaders must be trained and locations for the meetings must be found. A rock and roll type band must be created, often times the musicians must be paid, rehearsal time and space must be arranged for and the worshippers must be convinced that swaying to the music with eyes closed and hands uplifted is an authentic even chief form of worship. Space for at least several hundred people must be obtained that also has plenty of office space for the pastors and other support staff. A sound system must be installed and a good round figure is $30,000.

Then the "seekers" come rolling in. And they will come in droves. (A church in Ashland, Ohio I am familiar with had as many as 10,000 people come through the door the first year and one half.) Many of these will be unconverted people, though most will have been recycled from nearby churches. Now the new member, discipleship and cell groups and classes must be formed. This is a huge task. Slowly each person is brought to a place of greater and greater commitment to the small group at first and gradually to the larger church. Whatever capital funds campaigns are in place (remember the rental spaces, the band, the sound system, etc.) must be subscribed to and pledges secured for the general budget of the church. These tasks are not easily done, but the church growth experts have developed sure-fire ways of getting it accomplished.

So now the church is on its way. Hundreds attending each service on Sunday morning, the pastors are pastoring, teaching and preaching, but somebody forgot to close the back door. Many of the seekers are leaving because they haven't found anything. Or, they may be going to a new church start down the block that has even a better program for the kids plus a former rock star in the band or a professional athlete on the staff or a larger parking lot or more comfortable folding chairs or, -----. And despite all the teaching on money, the seekers didn't give very much money. Unconverted people historically are reluctant to give their hard-earned money for the cause of Christ.

What a hard job! Lots of people coming in the front door (and the pastors are hoping to develop personal relationships with them all--in order to connect and bond), and even more are heading out the back door. Yet, the bills have to be paid, the sound system has to be upgraded, the drummer wants more money, and so the inevitable downsizing begins. Staff is let go, volunteers are sought for the band, more economical meeting sites are sought, the capital funds campaign is re-evaluated; the finance committee meetings are a nightmare.

Not wanting to overdo here, let me just ask, "Who wants to do this?" I am stressed out simply thinking about it. And this is what hundreds of pastors are going through. And based on the e-mail I get, it is mightily stressful. I also know that it wrecks havoc on the people who got their hopes up about a new church only to see these hopes crushed. Have I overdone it just a bit? No, I don't think I have, in fact, I believe I have understated it. And we are only at the beginning of the failure of the church growth movement.

Let me say most solemnly: I am not gloating about this. I am not rejoicing at the unhappy things that are happening to my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Why do people put themselves through all this? One answer is that Christians are desperate to see people come to know Jesus as Savior and see the churches full. Right now in America and the UK few are being converted and we don't like it. So we invent methods to get people converted and fill up the churches. But these are, of course, only human inventions and can only succeed temporarily. These methods may be entertaining, but are dangerous because they distract the people from the word of God in the Scriptures.

Yes, I am distressed at the state of the church today and long to see a great awakening where large numbers of people are converted all the while the Christians are being renewed and revived. But I can not do it however desperate I may become. It must be done by the power of God. I can pray for God to bring the power of the Spirit and draw people to Jesus. I can preach the gospel to all who will listen. I can seek to honor God with all of my life. And then I wait on God. He has done it before. He may do it again.

Kent Philpott
September 1999

 

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