Church Growth vs. Community Engagement
As a young seminarian, I was captivated by the Church Growth Movement. The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary was divided into several schools when I entered in 2005. The “missions” school, which was named in honor of Billy Graham, was officially known as the school of “Missions, Evangelism, and Church Growth.” While all seminarians were required to take the same core classes (Systematic Theology, Church History, Biblical Languages, Spiritual Disciplines etc.), the school of missions offered classes in Cross-cultural Communication, World Religions, Missiology, and Personal Evangelism, to name a few. However, one required class in the School of Missions was Introduction to Evangelism and Church Growth. This course was taught by a godly professor who tried to balance a belief in the sovereignty of God in the salvation of believers and the methods espoused by the Church Growth Movement. If he believed the two were reconcilable then so did the younger and more gullible me!
After reading a long list of books on church growth principles and listening to several key leaders of the movement, I was sold on the idea of implementing “proven” methods to lead the church to break growth barriers. I was committed to developing outreach strategies, investing in ministries, and training the “folks” to be inviting and hospitable. Beyond my seminary classes, I also attend seminars and conferences that highlighted pastors who were champions of the Church Growth Movement. I bought their books, watched their sermons, and tried to implement everything I learned. The church I was pastoring at the time began to see tremendous growth. The average worship attendance went from between 150 to over 350. Plus, the Sunday School attendance grew from approximately 80-90 to 225. Although we were experiencing success (loosely defined), I felt as if something was wrong with my approach. That something was my heart. I had defined success in ministry by the number of people who drove to a building at a specific time on a specific day each week.
My journey away from the Church Growth Movement: As a result of my inner struggle and frustration with a numbers-driven approach to ministry, I began considering other ways of approaching missions and evangelism. After nearly a year of prayer, study, and consultation with other pastors, I resigned my pastorate and set out to do ministry differently. Although several fellow pastors believed that I was crazy for leaving a great church that was experiencing tremendous growth, I believed that I needed to start over. In retrospect, I recognize the younger me was both idealistic and very naive! Shortly thereafter I decided the best way to break free from my misplaced definition of success was planting new churches that were focused on the equipping believers to engage their communities with the gospel. It didn’t take long before the desire to reach and break numerical barriers once again became the goal of ministry. Church planting did not provide an escape from the church growth mindset. In many ways, it was worse. I had adopted an approach to ministry that measured my legitimacy as a minister of Christ and preacher of the gospel by arbitrary statistics. (More on the blessings and challenges of church planting in future posts.)
[Note: My criticisms of the Church Growth Movement are not directed toward any institution, author, or pastor. My representations of the movement should not be interpreted as an indictment against the godly pastors and professors who taught church growth principles. My analysis is based on my own interpretation of the Church Growth Movement and should not be construed as a criticism of other Christian leaders. My story is a reflection of my own journey out of unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of doing what only God can do–grow a church–to a balanced approach to ministry that places the missional emphasis on equipping believers to be individually and corporately involved in community engagement.]
Before offering a criticism of the Church Growth Movement, I need to distinguish between a desire to see your community come to the saving knowledge of Christ and the goal of gathering a large crowd in your building. There is a difference! If a church is preoccupied with gathering large groups of nameless people, competing with other churches in the community, or views people as financial means to meeting arbitrary budgetary goals, then it follows that they have likely adopted a flawed Church Growth Movement mindset. However, if the desire is to invest in individual people and individual families in the community (especially those who are vulnerable and likely to be overlooked in the “bigger is better mindset” (cf. James 1:27)), patiently engage people with the gospel and pour your life into a community then the church is likely on a different path–one that is healthy and biblical!
Here are just a few of the problems that arise when church growth and not community engagement becomes the driving force in a church:
1. Unrealistic expectations are placed on the pastor and staff. It doesn’t take long before compromises are either clearly expected or implied. Those who have drunk the proverbial kool-aid of the church growth ideology will expect the staff to do whatever it takes to pack people into the pews. Pastors will be tempted to avoid controversial topics and difficult doctrines in their preaching in order to draw in nominal bystanders. Those who hold the line and preach “the whole counsel of God” will inevitably come into conflict with the proponents of bigger is better.
2. Church staffing becomes a revolving door. Pastors become like college football coaches: Grow the church you and it won’t be long before bigger opportunities open up! Or worse, if you don’t build the program (oops, I mean the church) it may be time for a leadership change. Instead of looking for “superstars” to gather a crowd, the church should look for staff that have been called to invest their lives in that congregation.
3. Pulpit Search Committees look for a savior instead of a shepherd. All we need is a young pastor (not too young) who is a great speaker, has a dynamic personality, works 70 hours a week, and by his sheer charismatic power will draw people to our building. This is a recipe for disaster. Instead of looking at the man’s demographics, the church should spend time hearing about his passion for Christ and witnessing his fervor for sharing the gospel.
Beginning the journey away from the Church Growth mindset:
1. Realistic expectations of the staff and congregation. Community engagement is a church-wide initiative. Instead of placing the burden on a few, the body embraces the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) and begins engaging the people in their spheres (neighborhood, schools, jobs, etc.) with the gospel.
2. Developing leaders from within the church. Believers who are already vested in the community are less likely to relocate for a “better” ministry opportunity. Thus, the church should focus on developing future leaders from within the congregation. Leadership development is a 10-20 year plan. Dysfunctional leadership is often the byproduct of a lazy or rushed approach to finding leaders. For example, are there deacons in your church that could be trained to serve as lay pastors? Are there families in the church who desire to serve but need training? I recommend following an Ephesians 4:11-16 approach to developing leadership and deploying the body to be on mission.
3. Share the workload. One person cannot possibly possess all the gifts, attributes, and abilities to meet the expectations of a congregation preoccupied with larger crowds (cf. 1 Peter 4:10-11). Instead, churches should look for and follow pastors who are intentionally and strategically engaging people in their communities with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Get off of the sidelines and get into the game!
Look for additional posts on strategic community engagement where I provide some practical steps to equipping the church to be intentionally missional.
ATTENTION PASTORS: The first step toward a community engagement model begins with pastors demonstrating community engagement.
Practical Steps for Pastors:
1. Coach a local youth sports team. You’ll meet kids and parents and have endless opportunities to demonstrate and communicate the love of Christ.
2. Volunteer somewhere other than the church! Your community is full of opportunities for you to invest your time and gifts. For example, have you considered being a chaplain for your local police or fire department? Get out of the office and into the community.
3. Substitute teaching is another great opportunity to engage the community. Obviously, you’re not doing it for the money!
4. Talk to your neighbors! Pastor your neighborhood because God has strategically placed you there to love the people and teach them about Christ’s sacrificial love.
I’ll list more ideas in future posts.