Month: March 2008

Book review – Evaluating the church growth movement : 5 views

This is an important book for me to have read. Throughout the book, several references are made to common misunderstandings of the church growth movement. The problem is that people like me associate it with megachurches and seeker-sensitive services and don’t know the historical roots.

This book starts with a good historical sketch to correct such misunderstandings. The movement has its roots, as you may know, in the missiology of Donald McGavran (1897-1990), a Disciples of Christ missionary in India. (I’m surprised to learn that the founder was a Restorationist when the result today is nothing like the primitive church!)

He seemed to be reacting against the social gospel priority and believed that the main business of mission was to ‘save the lost’. (Helping them in their poverty and suffering etc was something of a second priority, which is one of many problems I think I have with McGavran.)

To maximise conversions, he investigated which churches grew and why. He then stated principles from these of how to reach people in a particular culture.

For him, discipleship meant simply conversion; ‘perfecting’ had the sense of growing in Christ and it was another second priority for him – and another point on which I strongly disagree with him. It’s interesting to note that his sense of the word ‘discipleship’ is opposite to the way it’s used in Anabaptist circles, where it is code for much more than conversion – the whole life process of bringing everything under Christ.

After the historical sketch, this book brings together five different perspectives on church growth – two of them very sympathetic, one of them ‘reformist’ and two of them critical. I have a lot in common with the two critics – Howard Snyder, from a ‘renewal’ perspective (I think his ecclesiology is excellent) and Craig Van Gelder using Lesslie Newbigin’s work for a ‘gospel and culture’ perspective.

But what I am shocked to realise is that some of the other movements that I sympathise with actually have roots or alliances in the church growth movement.

1. Vineyard movement – John Wimber came out of these circles and his friend Peter Wagner was McGavran’s successor as spokesman for the movement.

2. New house church movement – the saturation church planting and similar stuff in the ministry of Wolfgang Simson and Tony and Felicity Dale seems to use some of the same language and theology of the movement, even if it is mostly a reaction against the dominant ecclesiology of the megachurch side of it. They may be just as much in the McGavran tradition as the megachurches.

3. Emerging missional church – for example, as represented by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in Australia. I’ve just picked up my copy of Shaping of Things To Come, and there’s a quote on the back from Eddie Gibbs – Donald A. McGavran Professor of Church Growth. And then there’s the section on the homogeneous unit principle p. 52, taken straight from McGavran. Target a people group, you could put it as. (Reading back over it – and remembering how disappointed I was when I first read it – I am pleasantly surprised to see that they do regard heterogenous churches that bring together Jew and Greek so to speak, are the ultimate aim. HUP is just a missional strategy. So maybe emerging missional church has taken the best part of the church growth movement.)

The sort of criticisms that emerge of the movement are expected ones that I agree with. Most importantly, is an emphasis on numbers when numbers in the New Testament are a side effect of faithfulness and power in the Holy Spirit.

Significant also is the pragmatism that looks to ‘what works’ and then tries to justify it with Scripture.

I think I’m going to come away from this book with a better understanding of what’s going on in evangelicalism today.

The no-adjective church

Chuck Warnock’s written a great post pleading for a ‘no-adjective church’ – or really, for church to mean what it should mean again:

But, in the Book of Acts, they didn’t need adjectives.  Church was a community, a refuge, a place of healing, a gathering of God’s people, open to others, driven by fellowship and mission, obedient to God, gathered for worship, inclusive of slave and free, innovative, sharing, caring, loving, powerful, prayerful, worshiping, gifted — an expression of the kingdom coming in the world now.

Strange encounters with mainstream evangelicalism 3: the Word Catalogue and the Houstons

I was flicking through the Word Bookstore catalogue and I came to a page devoted to Hillsong stuff. There were two books which interested me, one depressing and one encouraging.

  1.  Bobby Houston has written a book called ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. The description makes it sound like as a minister’s wife you need to ensure you lead a life that everyone else wants. This sounds like a great way to encourage people to put up false facades of success.
  2. Brian Houston has written a book called ‘The Justice Generation’. This really surprises me. Apparently last year’s Hillsong conference had a justice theme. This is great – it sounds like kingdom thinking is getting past the theology of success. Good on you Hillsong.

Hiddenness of God

One of the subject headings theological libraries use is the beautiful phrase ‘the hiddenness of God’. For me, it sums up something important about my experience of God in the last while.  

Strange encounters with mainstream evangelicalism 2: Rick Warren

I was aware of the Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven phenomenon sweeping through churches, and I was sceptical. But maybe I shouldn’t have been.  I’m meeting a whole lot of evangelicals who have started serving in the community through doing the course. One group for, example, went and did a busy bee for the local government high school.  I think it’s great that this course is giving people servant hearts. I haven’t done the course, and I only flicked through his book; I’m sure I’d disagree with things, but I like this outcome.

Strange encounters with mainstream evangelicalism

The CEO-Pastor stuff won’t go away.

I heard John Kaiser talk yesterday. He’s written a book called Winning On Purpose and he has a lot to say about church governance. As I understand it, he thinks that it’s important that church structures be leader-centred, in the sense of giving a lot of authority and power to the leader to achieve goals set by a church board in whatever manner the leader sees fit.

Kaiser critiqued ministers of ‘stagnant’ churches, saying they tend to develop a theology of ‘unfruitfulness’ which justifies their lack of growth.  I bet a lot of those pastors’ churches are ‘unfruitful’ in their own ways, but I’d say it for different reasons.

The assumption seems to be that numerical growth is ‘fruitfulness’, that you’re ‘successful’ if you have lot of people attending your church. It’s easy to see where this type of thinking comes from – it’s the way people think in business and indeed in every area of the secular world. It’s not the way Jesus thought – after the feeding of the five thousand, he turned away from the crowds because they weren’t prepared to follow him fully. He kept on emphasising the cost of discipleship, and it caused would-be disciples to turn away. (Of course, at various times in the gospels and Acts there are big increases in numbers. Growth in numbers isn’t wrong, but it isn’t necessarily right either)

I don’t think the world needs more Christians as much as it needs more deep Christians, living committed lives of discipleship. We’ve got way too many Christians living lives indistinguishable from the world. It immunises the world against the radicalness of the kingdom. You lower the bar, you make church easy enough and fun enough, and of course you can get people to come. Mainly you’ll suck people away from the mid-sized congregations of those ‘unfruitful’ ministers. Christians will go to where the energy is. But will you have achieved anything for the kingdom?

Success for Jesus was a cross!

I flicked through his book today, and one section I read said that if a church grows under a minister’s leadership, he should get a pay rise! If it doesn’t grow, no pay-rise and he has a year to turn around or he gets the sack. I find this really hard to swallow. It sounds like exactly what you’d expect of a corporation, not a church. It sounds like someone taking the parable of the talents and applying it where it doesn’t belong.

This whole world of big churches with paid staff and structures is alien to me, and I have a lot to learn. It seems a lot of these ideas are coming out of frustration with traditional Baptist congregational government, a frustration I can understand. Yet the cure seems even further from Jesus. I feel upset by the ideas I’m encountering, but I’m going to try to listen with humility and learn what I can, critique what I need to.

Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety

‘Status anxiety’ is a condition we all suffer from to different degrees. It’s about comparing yourselves to others, wishing to have more attention or more fame or more money or more power. De Botton doesn’t think things were always quite like this. He sees a lot of it brought on by the competitive, socially mobile society we have created, where supposedly you can be anything. If you’re not something, it’s your own fault – the logic of our society tells us.

It’s not a Christian book, but de Botton is one of the best friends Christians could have. In explaining a condition he calls ‘status anxiety’ in our capitalist society, he is making a diagnosis that is very similar to the sins of pride and envy we find in the Bible. He’s agreeing with Jesus that we’re not here on Earth to build bigger barns and get the best seat at the table (to use Jesus’ language).

Not only this, but de Botton proposes that Christianity is one of the solutions to status anxiety! Christianity, he argues, tells people that what they accomplish on Earth is not all there is. It esteems the lowly, valuing (at its best) things other than money and power.

The other solutions he proposes are philosophy, art, politics and bohemia.

I’m impressed by de Botton. He writes with clarity, authority and insight. It seems he’s excited by a lot of different ideas and he makes them accessible to the lay-reader – an ambition I share with him. This is a book which is having a big impact on my life.