Church History, Theology

Church Growth and the Cross

When I entered the evangelical world in the mid-70s there was much talk and teaching (and guilt manipulation) about personal evangelism, but not much talk of church growth. A decade later, however, when I went to seminary, church growth was all the rage. I expected to study Scripture, to learn Hebrew (I did Greek in university), systematic theology, church history, homiletics, and pastoral theology. I was completely unaware of the so-called “church growth” movement. My earliest experience in a Reformed church was in a small German-Reformed congregation from the wrong side of the tracks. The “successful” and “influential” churches in my hometown tended to be on what was, temporarily, “church row” on the east end of town. Meanwhile, my little German Reformed congregation moved toward the center of town where it has been ever since. There we talked about Scripture, doctrine, the Christian life, and outreach to the community, but there was no expectation that we should become a large, influential presence in our heavily churched city.

In a couple of my pastoral theology courses in seminary, taught by adjunct professors, we heard and read quite a bit about techniques for time management and church growth. Another of my professors warned me repeatedly about the dangers of “empire building” (about which he was quite right) but nevertheless, later, as a young pastor in a small congregation, I became quite taken with the church growth movement. I read the church growth literature and sought to implement it. We tried to “modernize” the service with things like diaconal ministry, “The Phone’s For You,” Evangelism Explosion, mass media (radio, a telephone answering machine with a devotional message, newsletters, and fliers), and summer youth ministry, to name a few. But nothing worked. I so emphasized every-member evangelism and church growth that one of my parishioners said in passing, “Pastor, you seem very interested in the people out there, but you don’t seem very interested in us.”

My parishioner had a point. I had become obsessed with “church growth” and I had, to my shame, to some degree, neglected my first duty as a minister: to care for the flock with which I was entrusted. Not only that, I had swallowed some assumptions about the nature of ministry and the church that I now see as unbiblical. The church growth books regularly said that I needed to “take charge” of things and institute a de facto Episcopal church government (with me as bishop), that I needed to recruit leadership to the church that shared my “vision” for the future of the congregation, that I needed to push out those who opposed it, and that I needed to tell everyone else to “get on the bus or get run over.” This far I did not and could not go. Perhaps that is why I failed as a “church growth” guy?

I was not always a critic of the church growth movement, but I am now. I like to think that lurking in the back of my conscience during those years was the voice of Luther hectoring me about what he called “the theology of glory.” The core of the theologia gloriae is the doctrine that we can cooperate with grace sufficiently for salvation (justification and sanctification unto glorification), and that human reason is (implicitly) superior to Scripture. Paul addressed the theology of glory when he mocked the self-described “Super Apostles” in 2 Corinthians (11:5; 12:11). Certainly, he was seeking to undermine the theology of glory when he wrote:

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

What we call the “due use of ordinary means” or the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the holy sacraments is what Paul’s opponents called “foolishness.” Paul was committed to the “foolishness” of the preaching of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Savior. No church growth guru would ever have counseled Paul to start the church in Philippi with a few insignificant ladies who met for prayer by the river, but that’s what he did (Acts 16:13). Already in the mid-1st century there were self-appointed experts who thought that Paul was going about things all wrong, but Paul said, “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). According to the church growth experts, Paul made many mistakes. After all, have you ever looked at Paul’s pattern of travel? What a waste of time. He worked a side-job (as a tent-maker) when he could have been strategizing (there is that word again) and meeting with “key” (i.e., influential) leaders to promote the “vision” of the church.

One of the turning points in my life was when I began reading the older Reformed writers. What I found in them was a fear of God and a reverence for worship that cannot be reconciled with the methods and means of the church growth movement. I had to choose between an ordinary means approach to ministry or a church growth approach to ministry. I realized that there is no synthesizing the two.

All this leads us to the recent developments at Willow Creek. Saddleback Church and Willow Creek were the flagship churches for the church growth movement. Make no mistake, these two congregations, with their multiple campuses and large numbers, are impressive organizations. They have mastered the formula. Lately, however, the dark side of the methodologies has come to light, at least at Willow Creek. The same sorts of power politics and personal manipulation used ostensibly in service of the “vision” was employed by Willow Creek’s CEO for his personal sexual gratification. And “the little people” (as Abraham Kuyper referred to them affectionately) got hurt in the process. Bill Hybels has resigned, and the scandal is in the press.

The church growth movement is a species of the theology of glory. It is not that the movement and its advocates corrupt the gospel directly. They do it indirectly by marginalizing it. They certainly place the wisdom of the business schools above the Scriptures. Beyond the core errors of the theologia gloriae is the desire to use the church as the means to self-aggrandizement or as my old prof said, “empire building.”

The disciples saw the Kingdom of God as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement:

And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized…” (Mark 10:37–39).

The disciples were thinking about this-worldly power and Jesus was thinking about death. The consequence of following Jesus is death to self, death to selfish ambition, death to empire building. Far too often in my observation and experience, the church growth movement seeks to baptize selfish ambition and empire building.

Does rejecting the church growth movement in favor of an ordinary means approach to ministry mean that one is indifferent to evangelism and the lost? Not at all. The question assumes that the only way to be concerned about the lost and evangelism is to embrace the church growth movement and mentality. That is a false assumption. Indeed, it assumes that church growth is evangelism. That is not true. Evangelism is the official proclamation of the good news, that Jesus is the Messiah, that he obeyed in the place of his elect, that he died for them, that he was raised for their justification, that he is ascended, and that he is coming again.

We know as we preach this foolishness that the way remains narrow and the harvest belongs to God. We ought to pray fervently and frequently that God the Spirit would use the preaching of the gospel to call his elect to new life and to true faith. The members of the church ought to pray for opportunities to give witness to the faith (the basic truths of the Christian faith) and to their faith—that they believe these things. We should pray that God might use this witness to his glory and for the edification of the church.

An ordinary means orientation is a different paradigm for ministry. It is not fundamentally pragmatic, but it is fundamentally principled. It is patient. It waits for the Lord of the harvest to do his work, in his time, in his way. It is committed to what Luther called the “theology of the cross,” (theologia crucis), which is not about our “control, authority, and power” (as one contemporary Reformed writer likes to say), but God’s. It recognizes that the Kingdom of God is essentially a mystery, not a method. It is powerful when we are weak. The Romans martyred and exiled the apostles, but the gospel continued, the elect came to faith, and the church grew as God ordained.

The theology of glory makes ministers into masters. The theology of the cross makes masters into ministers, which is how the Lord of the church would have it.

Filed under: Church History, Theology
R. Scott Clark

R. Scott Clark (D.Phil., Oxford University) is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, an ordained minister, and author of several books including, Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (P&R, 2008). Follow him on Twitter: @RScottClark.