I begin with confession: I tried and failed miserably “to do the church growth thing” in various ways in a my congregation in Kansas City from 1987-1993. We were a small congregation and I had the impression that I had been called as the Assistant, then Associate pastor and then as pastor to “grow the church.” So I tried to do and get the congregation to do as much of the “church growth” stuff as we could do. I became an “Evangelism Explosion” trainer and taught classes in EE. I did it myself, knocking on every door in our community more than once. We handed out fliers. By the way, thank you to those who went out on a cold St Patrick’s Day, getting your hands green because the ink wasn’t dry on the fliers. Thanks to Mark Hanson for standing in supermarket parking lots and getting chased out (!) with me. We did Project Jericho, bringing teenagers down from South Dakota and Wisconsin to see the city and do more door-to-door evangelism. We tried VBS. The kids worked so hard and they couldn’t help but cry when no one showed. I read Tim Keller’s book on diaconal ministry so we tried that. I spent two years meeting some “colorful” folks, leading bible studies and delivering food and medicine, but only a few people came to church out of it. I did “The Phone’s for You” – it’s a long story and I met some interesting people on the phone — it was back when people weren’t yet ready to murder telephone solicitors–but no one came. We did Today’s Good News — a telephone answering message that generated calls via an ad in the personals. We sent out 400 newsletters every month (that you Malinda for folding and sorting them!) to those who had left their addresses on the machine. We sent out evangelistic audio cassettes with a mini-documentary about the church on one side and a modified EE presentation on the other. A few people came. We held bible studies all over the metro area. Our motto was: “If you’ll hold it, I’ll teach it.” For a while we did a weekly radio show on one of the local Christian stations. If the web had existed we would have tried that. We tried, and failed, to plant another congregation. We remodeled the church building. The congregation had bought an old Standard service station and remodeled and in about 1990-91 we remodeled (thanks to everyone who helped and especially to Ed who did much of it by himself!). By the time we were done, the place looked really nice. I pushed for the addition of contemporary worship music — the congregation pushed back. We had a brief song service before the stated service. We watched videos produced by the Christian Business Men’s Association on friendship evangelism. Despite all that (or because of it?) when I left the congregation in 1993 we were about the same number as when I came. It was, to some degree, a different group of people, but the numbers were more or less unchanged. Almost as a providential rebuke to all of that busy-ness, the congregation later sold the building (it’s now a really nice looking used car lot), went into a temporary location and later built a nice facility out by the airport where the size of the congregation doubled.
What does it all mean? I tried to adapt “the Reformed message” to all the different methods being retailed then by the church growth gurus. I was desperate. Whenever pastors get together they discuss three things: buildings, bodies, and budgets. I didn’t have any of them. The question, which I’ve asked many times, “How is your congregation doing?” was code for, “How many people have you coming in the front door?” (Don’t get me started on “front door” v. “side door” v. “back door,” oh my.) The one thing I didn’t try was being confessionally Reformed.
Were there practical problems? Sure. An old service station is a bad place to try to plant a congregation, but the truth is that we were, like most Reformed congregations, a commuter church organized around doctrines and practices, not an amorphous neighborhood church and we were probably never going to become a neighborhood congregation.
One of the biggest problems is that we accepted the premise that “church growth” or “church planting” or even “church re-planting” can be done quickly. No, it can’t, not if we’re going to plant and grow confessionally Reformed congregations. We don’t need two years, we need twenty, but that’s a different post.
Second, I know nothing about Nancy Morganthaler. I haven’t read this sort of literature in a long time. I haven’t looked at it much since I went off to grad school in ’93. From what I can tell, based in this piece by Morganthaler, the more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Apparently there was some sort of “revolution” in the 90s where evangelicals told themselves that they could win the unchurched simply by having cool services where people were blissed out. So they hauled in equipment, got rid of the suits and ties, and played watered down versions of pop music. Apparently it, like crack cocaine, worked briefly but now the high has worn off and they’re looking for the next big thing.
It turns out that all the “unchurched” people who were supposed to be coming to the new and improved, even more hip seeker-senstive services, weren’t. I could have told you so. To give credit where it’s due, Jim Dennison told me in 1985 that all the “growth” that folks were touting was nothing more than “sheep shifting.” He was right. When I was trying this stuff the average American congregation was less than 200 and most of them were less than 100. I don’t know what the numbers are now, but the trend then (and Morganthaler’s essay suggests it’s only continued) was to see smaller congregations folding and feeding the mega churches.
Morganthaler’ answer is to abandon the “worship” community. She’s closed her once cutting edge website and she’s now touting the emerging emphases.
Same old song, new chorus. It’s a false dilemma. We don’t have to choose between worship and evangelism. We can have both, but in doing both we need to be faithful to our principles and trust the Lord of the church for the outcome.
What did I learn in Kansas City?
1. I’m not the Holy Spirit. That should be pretty obvious, but the pressure to “grow the church” is powerful and it’s easy to forget that only the Spirit softens hearts and raises dead sinners to life and draws them to Christ.
2. Don’t confuse the law with the gospel. I can’t tell you how many times I preached the gospel from Exodus or John or 1 Corinthians only to contradict everything I had just said by putting the congregation under the law. Remember when Lucy moved the football just as Charlie Brown tried to kick it?
3. Be confessionally Reformed. We tried being re-packaging the Reformed faith in contemporary evangelical garb. We failed and we’re not the only ones. In the years since I’ve seen a lot of congregations try the “contemporary” thing. It’s a little sad. Middle class (mostly white) Presbyterian and Reformed congregations just don’t do the P&W thing very well. We’re not hip. Even if we’ve worked out a rationale for it, we still have a memory of another kind of worship and maybe even a conscience that there’s something strangely wrong when a Reformed service is indistinguishable from what Rick Warren or Mars Hill or the local AoG is doing.
The tragedy of trying to be what we aren’t is not fundamentally that we can’t do it well. It’s that we shouldn’t be trying; that in so doing we’ve shelved the very thing we have to offer a lost world: a community gathered around the Gospel and the sacraments. Our worship services, if we conduct them according to our principle (see Heidelberg Catechism Q. 96 or Westminster Confession ch. 21), are inherently evangelical and evangelistic. Every Reformed worship service announces the law and the gospel. It declares salvation and rest and righteousness in Christ. The sacraments are the gospel made visible. In true worship, we are called and drawn by God himself to meet and worship the living God in Christ his Word. What else do sinners fundamentally need?
What about evangelism? Rather than making it something that we “do” it is something that we are. There’s nothing new about this view but it’s still true. Evangelism is what we do on the Sabbath, in worship.
Yes, but what about evangelism? Oh, you mean “witness.” Christ’s people are called by the Word to give witness to the faith and to their faith. That has to occur in the daily lives of Christ’s people as they interact with their friends, loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers. It means showing Christ-like love in concrete situations and it means speaking the truth in those situations whenever the opportunity arises.
Will it work? Yes and no. It probably won’t “work” (as the gurus define effectiveness) but see principle #1. We’re not the Holy Spirit. Will God the Spirit accomplish his purposes as we trust him and worship and witness according to his Word? Yes. I guarantee it. Will you like it? Next question. If we’re still just sheep-shifting, and all the gimmicks really haven’t made a dent in reaching the lost, then perhaps, just maybe, we confessional Reformed folk should try one more thing: being ourselves.