This essay was my response to an 2007 article by Nancy Morganthaler on the failure of the church growth movement (HT: Justin Taylor). It is necessarily somewhat autobiographical. My criticisms of the church growth movement are partly theoretical and partly practical, to borrow an expression from Francis Turretin (1623–87). Those theological problems might be surmountable if the method actually did what it promised, but it does not. Thus, the church growth movement is also problematic on a practical level and, in this essay, I sketch some of my experience with the church-growth approach to pastoral ministry, which caused me to doubt it and which caused me to look to what we now call an “ordinary means of grace” approach to ministry, which our forefathers called the Reformed approach to ministry. Since the publication of this essay, I have published Recovering the Reformed Confession and a number of other essays which are included in the resources for this post.
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 the Associate pastor, and then as the pastor to “grow the church.” So I tried to 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 was not 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 could not 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 is a long story and I met some interesting people on the phone (back when people were not 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 (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 it, and in about 1990–91 we remodeled again (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 busyness, the congregation later sold the building (it is 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 did not have any of them. The question, which I have asked many times, “How is your congregation doing?” was code for, “How many people do you have coming in the front door?” (do not get me started on “front door” v. “side door” v. “back door,” oh my). The one thing I did not 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 cannot—not if we are going to plant and grow confessionally Reformed congregations. We do not need two years, we need twenty—but that is a different post.
Second, I know nothing about Nancy Morganthaler. I have not read this sort of literature in a long time. I have not looked at it much since I went off to grad school in 1993. From what I can tell, based on 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 worked briefly but now the high has worn off and they are 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, were not. I could have told you so. To give credit where it is 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 do not know what the numbers are now, but the trend then (and Morganthaler’s essay suggests it is only continued) was to see smaller congregations folding and feeding the mega churches.
Morganthaler’s answer is to abandon the “worship” community. She is closing her once cutting-edge website and is now touting the emerging emphases.
Same old song, new chorus. It is a false dilemma. We do not 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 am not the Holy Spirit. That should be pretty obvious, but the pressure to “grow the church” is powerful and it is easy to forget that only the Spirit softens hearts and raises dead sinners to life and draws them to Christ.
2. Do not confuse the law with the gospel. I cannot 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 re-packaging the Reformed faith in contemporary evangelical garb. We failed and we are not the only ones. In the years since, I have seen a lot of congregations try the “contemporary” thing. It is a little sad. Middle-class Presbyterian and Reformed congregations just do not do the Praise-and-Worship thing very well. We are not hip. Even if we have worked out a rationale for it, we still have a memory of another kind of worship and maybe even a conscience that there is something strangely wrong when a Reformed service is indistinguishable from what Rick Warren or Mars Hill or the local Assemblies of God are doing.
The tragedy of trying to be what we are not is not fundamentally that we cannot do it well. It is that we should not be trying; that in so doing we have 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 is nothing new about this view, but it is 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 will not “work” (as the gurus define effectiveness) but see principle number one. We are not the Holy Spirit. Will God the Spirit accomplish his purposes as we trust him, worship, and witness according to his Word? Yes. I guarantee it. Will you like it? Next question. If we are still just sheep-shifting, and all the gimmicks really have not made a dent in reaching the lost, then perhaps, just maybe, we confessional Reformed folk should try one more thing: being ourselves.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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Thanks for taking time to give us these serious thoughts to ponder. They are relavent to my situation.
How true. Many never seem to learn. Please keep on standing and teaching God’s truths. You are appreciated.
On a another note, a very Godly servant in Scotland was laid to rest today. His life honored God and for over 50 years, he continued to preach and teach to a people who left God’s truth behind in Scotland and around the world.
Rev. Eric Alexander honored God. To those reformed believers that had the privilege to hear him preach and teach, let us be thankful. He grew the ‘true church’, God’s people, by building her up in God’s word.
Eric Alexander remained faithful. He honored God and for that I am very grateful.
I heard Eric preach. He will be missed.
Good stuff! You mentioned Keller. Following him from a far he seems a bit too calculated in his approach. It’s easy (for me) to criticize from a far, so I take nothing away from his hard work and the comfort he provides in preaching the word of God. But that’s a difficult balance. If sound doctrine has to be intellectualized to reach high society…. Eventually, if done right, we are left with the gospel above all else. Will that be enough to keep em coming and staying? As you said (it’s not all you said but a vital part), if the Holy Spirit convicts, it will be.
I think there is one fair criticism to his approach in that he seems to only view things through the lens of “the City” and this is out of touch with the rural. Which is interesting because his upbringing was not exactly in the city (Allentown, PA and Bucknell in undergrad are hardly “the city”) and in many ways feels like he forgets what the rural blue collar Pennsylvanian (insert anywhere else) is like. Being from that general area of PA (Lebanon County) I can tell
you that outside of certain pockets and towns it just doesn’t jive. I don’t knock Keller’s presence and heart for the city. But I do have an issue with over emphasizing the city and acting like it’s an end all be all-especially when you understand that “cities” in the OT and even NT did not embody what we think of today.
While Dr. Clark doesn’t address this here, the recent presbycast episode on rural churches for the Reformed is a good discussion.