Idea: Let's Try Every Way But Christ's Way? (or maybe not)

re-post from 29 August 2007 on the old HB.

Thanks to a link by Justin Taylor I read an article by Nancy Morganthaler this morning that is disturbing on so many levels I hardly know where to begin.

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” (our version of the SWIM and SAIL programs) 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 (borrowed from Denny Prutow) — a telephone answering message that generated calls via an ad in the personals. We sent out 400 newsletters every month (thank 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. 

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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6 comments

  1. Wow, that sounds familiar. This isn’t a new thought, and you may have previously addressed it, but at what point does the mega-church become the harvest field? I mean that in all sincerity, I came out of the mega-church to the reformed church riding the back of sola fide, sola christus, having battled the altar call and “am I really saved?” (assurance) ( not to mention an entire childhood spent as an rc) It’s fair to say I moved from formal works-righteousness, to informal works-righteousness couched in “enthusiasms”, to finally rest in christ. I understand visible/invisible considerations, but I guess my real question is; “has the american evangelical world so lost it’s protestant bearing, that frankly it should be regarded in much the same light we “visibly” regard roman catholics?”

  2. To further clarify that thought, as a former roman catholic, conversing with other roman catholics crossing the bridge to protestantism, many times the conversation would melt down to something like this; “the better I understand the christian faith the worse roman catholic I become. As a roman catholic these tensions became quite obvious. Having also, passed through american evangelicalism, I have to say those tensions are even more exaggerated. In many ways, I was closer to grasping the gospel as an rc than as an american evangelical.

  3. Dr. Clark,
    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Thanks so much for this encouraging entry. An identity crisis on a massive scale is destroying many reformed and presbyterian congregations from the inside. Your insights are always helpful. Keep up the good work.

  4. Though I am not from the Presbyterian faith, I have researched in the Presbyterian USA church and found that they have strayed from the tenets of scripture. God has never blessed denominations who embrace liberal views (homosexuality).

    I found this blog through a google alert on “church growth”. My book, “Built by the Owner’s Design” (The Positive Approach to Building Your Church God’s Way) addresses similiar issues.

    God Bless,

    Danny R. Von Kanel

  5. Hi Danny,

    I don’t know that I would want to set up a direct cause and effect relation between our obedience and divine blessing. I’m certainly critical of the PCUSA and hope to see them turn from infidelity to fidelity but they (as we all) should do so out of thankfulness for grace rather than as a means to blessing. Only Jesus kept the law and earned blessing. He’s the only true covenant keeper. The rest of us are sinners who stand by grace alone.

    I’m not certain what you’re suggesting, but I wouldn’t want to define blessing as “church growth.” Confessional Reformed folk hope to see all of Christ’s people come to faith and to live according to his Word but I wouldn’t connect that hope to the church growth movement.

  6. Wow. Morganthaler reinvents herself right out of the church, er, I mean Big Top. Why can’t I say I am surprised?

    I have read similar things in the CRC’s Banner. Under the guise of “refreshment,” they amount to, well, leaving the church. The ironic thing seems to be that in efforts to get out from underneath this impulse of self-absorption it’s just another reinvention of it. Though in essence nothing really all that new to the American religious landscape, church-growth as we know it seems largely driven by those generations of the 20th century who just can’t stop looking in the mirror and navels. Paralleling their secular lives where many are at the age of retirement from vocation (“refreshment”), Morganthaler seems to suggest everyone do the same in their sacred vocation…drop out. They STILL don’t seem to grasp the idea of secular/sacred antithesis, but rather want it all to conveniently dovetail.

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