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.

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4 thoughts on “Strange encounters with mainstream evangelicalism

  1. Hello Nathan! I have to confess firstly I belong to a large Suburban church which has expanded from 2 to 5 congregations over the last 7 years. I am not a proponent of Kaiser however, and with you take issue with his business like interpretation of church success. Our church struggled for many years with low numbers and has grown only as we sought God and stepped out in faith. The growth came as a bit of a shock to us all, we were doing little different from many other similar churches by way of worship style, programs etc. but they started to come. We did not “lower the bar” to make it easier to come, indeed the bar has been raised in challenge to comittment, discipleship and evangelism. We do not have an authoritarian pastor, he does however lead from the front, however only proceeds if unity is established. We have chosed to not go down the Superchurch road and build bigger buildings, but go multi-congregational, encorage home groups and have plant new churches in nearby suburbs. I suppose I just want to show that success theology (and prosperity docitrine) proponents do not have a mortgage on church growth. We have struggled with the issues in a growing church (programs, staffing, buildings etc) and do not pretend to have all the answers, but here we are! Would love to say more, be back soon!!

  2. Hey Grizzle – thanks for your comments; I am consistently challenged (in a good way) by them! I’ve edited my post slightly, including adding a line recognising that faithful churches often do grow, and indeed they did in the NT.

    I’m glad to hear of the example of your church. It shows that you don’t have to adopt the language and methods of big business to grow as a church. I think jaded house church types need to hear stories like yours. I hope you can stay faithful with that high bar as you work out how to cope with all this growth!

    Is ‘success theology’ a recognised term? If so, I like it, because it seems to sum up what I’m encountering in Perth at the moment.

  3. I came across your site today as I was doing some personal research. And while I don’t usually leave comments, a couple your statements about John Kaiser and his “line of thought,” caused me some concern.

    I won’t waste time defending or critiquing Kaiser, though I find it interesting that judgements can be made about a man and/or his ministry philosophy based on a passive listening experience in a seminar and a mere “flicking” through of a book.

    What bothers me is the automatic assumption that when someone talks about “numbers” in the church that they must be more concerned about having lots of people in attendance than they are about spiritual depth – they must be “lowering the bar.”

    While this mindset does exist in some churches (and I’ve actually seen it more often in smaller churches than in large ones), to level such a “blanket” accusation at any church that might do church differently than you benefits no one.

    Is it not possible that numbers mean more than numerical growth in the church? Think about it – every number represents a soul who has an eternal destiny at stake. And whether your church is 50 people or 20,000 people, those numbers should be what drives us day in and day out to keep our doors open.

    I agree wholeheartedly that we need more spiritual depth in the Christians who do come to our churches, and we should do everything we can to help those who attend our church to acheive that depth. But I also believe WE NEED MORE CHRISTIANS. Jesus Christ has called every Christian in every church (both large and small) to be concerned about the lost and to GO and make disciples of every nation.

    I serve on staff at a smaller church (around 180), and live in a small county of about 14000 people. On any given Sunday, only about 4900 people even go to any church of any kind. That looks like a great number until you consider the flip-side. On any given Sunday, more than 9100 people don’t go to church at all. Potentially, 9100 people are living life and dying without Christ.

    Scripture asks us a haunting question – How will they know unless we tell them? If we aren’t concerned about getting those numbers into our church then we are not fulfilling our mission as a church. My church, and yours, should be growing numerically – not just for the sake of numbers, but for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And when a church talks about those numbers we don’t always need to assume that they have lowered the bar.

    Finally, there are pros and cons to every type of church leadership and business structure. We’ll never agree on what is the BEST way to lead. But, at the end of the day, do I spend my life criticizing someone else’s way of doing church, or do I take seriously the call to be a true follower of Jesus Christ – a disciple who is not only growing in depth, but purposefully seeking to GO and make more disciples.

  4. Dear David,

    Thanks for taking the time to offer your thought provoking comments. I will think carefully through what you’ve said, but also offer some initial thoughts.

    I hope I don’t spend my life criticising other people’s way of doing church. But this post was more about me than about John Kaiser. I’m trying to engage more with mainstream evangelicalism, and I find myself discouraged by some things I hear. After I heard this speech, I felt very discouraged in my faith.

    The business/CEO/ church growth streams of church seem dominant to me. Those of us who disagree feel like there’s not much room for us to disagree when the ideas are taken as orthodoxy by many leaders, and especially those with power.

    John Kaiser’s ideas are a direct critique of the way most other people do church, so I do think it’s fair to comment that my initial reaction is one of major disagreement.

    Like you I’d disagree with anyone who becomes obsessed with numbers, whether small or big church. I think if you start setting targets of attendance and measuring your pastor’s success or failure by whether he meets them, you’re obsessed with numbers. That’s what I encountered in the part I read.

    I also read something interesting during the week which made a case for the ‘Go and make disciples’ translation of Matthew 28 being misleading – that it should be ‘As you go, make disciples…’. That would make a difference to what we do, I think.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

    Peace to you, Nathan.

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