Industrial or Pastoral?: The Techniques of Church Growth

D. G. Hart
Thursday, July 5th 2007
May/Jun 2000

When the Apostle Peter wrote of his desire for the Church to "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pet. 3:18), did he have in mind a bevy of megachurches, filled with American suburbanites, providing spiritual resources for every aspect of middle-class life, from Christo-centric ceramics classes to marital counseling in how to recover the feeling of being naked and unashamed? Or was he thinking less in terms of quantity-e.g., attendance, giving, programs-and more of quality, namely, hoping for greater spiritual discernment, more evidence of sanctification, and deeper perseverance in the faith? These two alternatives usually form the debating points for discussions about church growth. The evangelistically minded typically think in measurable categories. And they regard sticklers for doctrine or polity as impeding the spread of the Gospel. Theological and procedural nitpickers, in turn, judge many church growth plans to be at best crass and at worst a betrayal of God's sovereignty in salvation. For them, the proper way to evaluate the growth of the Church is not by counting heads but rather by looking at levels of commitment, fruit of the spirit, and faithful preaching. The result inevitably is the kind of standoff that used to sell lots of Lite Beer for the Miller Brewing Company with various celebrities shouting back and forth, "Tastes great!" "Less filling!" The church growth equivalent might sound something like "Bigger celebration centers!" "No long passages at family worship!"

Actually, both sides have a point. The theological conservatives are likely correct to argue that Peter was more concerned with the quality of faith than with the number or size of individual congregations. Yet the evangelistically minded may also be right to think that the Church must use certain techniques to facilitate growth. The question then becomes whether it is possible to have it both ways: well populated and firmly faithful churches. In other words, can attention to the mechanics of numerical growth be combined with theological and ecclesiastical rigor? As much as the current scene in American Evangelicalism appears to prove otherwise, it could actually be possible to be big and faithful. Of course, bigness and faithfulness are debatable characteristics. But the teaching of Scripture actually suggests that evangelistic techniques are just as important as theological precision. What is more, its instruction implies that when the Church uses the right methods, doctrinal fidelity and spiritual maturity follows.

Church Growth: The State of the Art

A concern for the right techniques of church growth does not lead to endorsing the contemporary methods that dominate the American church scene. The most popular literature on increasing the size and influence of churches is vast, redundant, and easily ridiculed. For instance, in Rick Warren's highly popular The Purpose Driven Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), which many conservative Protestants use almost without a second thought, the pastor of the highly acclaimed Saddleback church observes the hang-ups of the unchurched that he and his staff have sought to remedy. The unchurched don't like pitches for money, are suspicious of manipulation by fear, don't want to have to attend every church meeting, and don't want to have to stand up to introduce themselves. Warren and his staff regularly send out a letter to prospective church attendees informing them that Saddleback church is a "group of happy people who have discovered the joy of the Christian lifestyle," enjoy "upbeat music with a contemporary flavor," and listen to "positive, practical" messages that provide encouragement each week. But at Warren's church the offense of the Gospel can easily be confused with a positive-thinking, toe-tapping, grin-wearing Christianity that ignores the darker side of life.

Yet aside from questions about what it means to have a sober view of life, church growth leaders don't seem to be aware of church life beyond the few "successful" megachurches where circumstances, as much as "strategic" thinking, account for large numbers. Take, for instance, the case of a recent article in Reformed Worship ("Different Strokes," March 1999) where Charles Arn, the president of Church Growth, Inc., a company based in Monrovia, California, recommended that Christian Reformed Church (CRC) officers and members (the sponsor of Reformed Worship) add another worship service in order to attract more people. Whether you call it a "seeker" service, "alternative," "contemporary," or simply a "second" service, the question isn't whether to have one but when. Arn promises that the extra service will increase total attendance, giving, and conversions. The article is remarkable if only because it reads like a parody of the church growth literature. Arn makes no reference to theology nor does he consider the notion that God is as much the audience for worship as seekers. In fact, he looks at the Church as if it were a business and worship a consumer product.

Almost as troubling is Arn's complete unfamiliarity with happenings in the CRC. During the same week that this issue of RW came out, another CRC publication, The Banner, the weekly denominational magazine, reported that the denomination's membership had dropped to pre-1968 figures, down from an all-time high in 1991. What Arn seemed to miss, along with his editors at RW, is that at precisely the same time that the CRC began experimenting with new services and expanding its worship "repertoire," the denomination lost members faster than any other time in its 150-year history. So if church growth executives are so smart, why did the CRC decline? No doubt, the controversy over women's ordination accounted for some loss. Surely, however, the wonders of the extra service should have more than made up for the loss of CRC conservatives. But such hard cases rarely impede the sky's-the-limit thinking of church growth's "experts."

Yet the kingpin of church growth is Lyle Schaller, whose wisdom is pervasive in the pages of Leadership magazine. What is amazing about this man's advice to pastors and church leaders is how unaware either he or his editors are that someone might have principled objections to such pragmatic ways of looking at the Church. It is as if premodernity never happened, as if churches have always reduced the Church to measurable units, as if events like the Reformation or Vatican I are folk tales, and as if religious practices like preaching, prayer, and fasting had no higher reference than membership statistics. For instance, in one article explaining the myths of church growth, Schaller pontificates that "the congregation averaging 150 at worship will need $16 to $18 per worshiper per weekend to pay all operational expenses, including missions." (1) (Since when did missions need to be included as an add-on to operational expenses?) Schaller continues that the congregation averaging 500 at worship will need between $20 and $30 per worshiper, and when the congregation grows to 800 the figures goes up to $45. One of the reasons why Schaller's views are so popular is because Christians so spiritualize the work of the Church and make it such an abstraction that they never take into account such practical considerations as how expenses go up when attendance increases. But Schaller's general rules can't explain the experience of many congregations in the past whose members sacrificed and saved-all for the good of the Church and from a higher sense of duty. At a certain point one begins to wonder what kind of people are flocking to Schaller's churches? It seems likely that people who want churches to meet their felt needs are folks who may be too preoccupied to feel the needs of others or consider any notion of a higher purpose.

Equally frustrating about Schaller's laws of modern church life are his reduction of rites and ceremonies with historic religious significance to mere mechanics of attracting and retaining worshipers with an income appropriate to a congregation's economy of scale. The larger and newer the church, Schaller glibly asserts, "the more time is required for music and intercessory prayer to transform that collection of individuals into a worshiping community." Older generations of saints were under the impression that Sabbath preparation was supposed to accomplish some of that transformation, but today's seekers are another matter. Schaller continues that "the larger the crowd, and the greater the emphasis on teaching, the longer the sermon." But in long sermons preachers need to work in humor, "revealing personal anecdotes," and redundancy. One last liturgical tidbit from the former United Methodist minister is this-the larger the crowd, the longer the service. "Forty to fifty minutes may be appropriate when attendance is under a hundred, but if it exceeds five hundred, that worship experience should probably be in the sixty-five to ninety minute range." (2) Now it may seem like grousing, but shouldn't Christian teaching about human nature, let alone corporate worship, suggest that Schaller is wrong and that all people need the same thing when they assemble to praise God and to hear the Gospel, even if their number is only two or three? Are Word and Sacrament more concentrated in a smaller setting? Such questions never seem to trouble Schaller's view of or prescriptions for the Church. Success apparently has no reference beyond a functional, well-staffed, prosperous church that is dispensing what its members want to hear and feel.

The Church as Organic and Mysterious

Customer satisfaction might be one way of describing Schaller's notion of a good church, which is another way of saying that he and his church growth colleagues apply industrial and mechanical models to something that is fundamentally organic and mysterious, namely, the body of Christ. Modern ideas about church growth stem directly from business techniques and are one among many of the negative consequences resulting from the disestablishment of religion in the United States. Still, one would think it possible to resist the commodification of religion while welcoming the freedom that comes with disestablishment. Equally puzzling is that none of the promoters of these techniques appear to be aware of what their methods do to Christianity itself. So standard is the distinction between form and content that contemporary church leaders hardly bother with the effects of certain practices upon the message communicated, whether implicitly or explicitly.

This is one of the many worthwhile points made by mainline Protestant critics Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street in their book, Selling Out the Church (1997). They also challenge the idea that numerical growth is a reliable indicator of a church's success. They write, "We suspect that judging success by measuring one's market share is solid business if you are Coca-Cola; we believe it is not a good idea for First Church at the corner of Main and Jefferson." (3) Church marketers assume that numerical growth is "an indication that something exciting and meaningful is happening." (4) It is interesting that this statement precedes [George] Barna's warning about the possible intoxicating effects of growth. He seems not to see that his assumption about growth contributes to such intoxication…. In other words, in a society that breeds both dissatisfaction and boredom and strips us of many traditional ways of living meaningfully, the growth of a particular church may be nothing more than an indicator that it has succeeded (for the moment) in providing two existential "products" that many people intensely desire: excitement and meaning. Of course, the excitement and meaning for which the Church may be a temporary vehicle may have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel.

Even though it might feel strange to agree with mainline Protestants, Kenneson and Street are exactly right. The emphasis on soul-winning and evangelism in conservative Protestant circles has fostered a vacuum about the Church and her ministry, such that to be a conservative about the ministry of Word and Sacrament is to have more in common with liberal denominations where traditional forms remain the norm, than with itinerant revivalists who refuse to let liturgy compromise effectiveness.

The Biblical Methods of Church Growth

Yet, agreeing with mainline critics of church growth can only go so far. Yes, faithfulness is different from-and more important than-effectiveness. But numbers are also important, and here I am not referring to the unconverted who need to be reached but to the baptized who we let get away. Here again, the distinction between form and content is a culprit in the way Protestants conceive of the Church and her growth. As much as the Church needs to see how the techniques of contemporary church growth alter the content of the Gospel, believers also need to recognize that God has ordained certain techniques or forms for the Church's growth. And the one reliable God-given method is the natural and organic one of baptizing infants born to believing parents.

In the past, confessional Protestants, like Presbyterian and Lutherans, planted new churches in a remarkably calm way. Several families would move away from a community with an existing congregation to one where none existed. Once this group grew to five families, they would send word back to the office of home missions, the secretary of which would look for a pastor to shepherd the denomination's migrs. And the rest was history. The denomination would continue to support the mission work until it grew to a size that was self-sustaining. Some of the new growth came from grafting believers from other traditions onto the vine of a particular confessional tradition. Some came from the children who grew up in the new congregation and became families of their own. And, of course, some came from new converts to Christianity. This older model of church growth and planting was inherently organic and covenantal. It ran along lines of familiarity; the core group had grown up in the particular communion. And it was zealous about retaining the covenant children. The church followed those members who had been reared in her bosom and the success of a new plant depended on another generation of believers remaining in the fold to support the new church.

In and of itself, Baptism is a technique for church growth unrivaled by modern methods. What is more, Baptism, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches, signifies our "engrafting" into Christ and "partaking" of the covenant of grace (93). It also admits persons into the visible church. In other words, it is a ready mechanism for enlarging the Church. But aside from the phenomenological aspects of this Sacrament (i.e., how much, how big, how many), Baptism also nurtures the qualitative growth of individual believers. In the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism (167) the "duty of improving our Baptism" is a lifelong endeavor that consists partly in "growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament." Pondering the significance of the sign that we wear daily because of the water of Baptism, then, is actually more effective and of deeper significance than wearing a WWJD bracelet. Consequently, Baptism gives exactly what church growth experts want, numbers and spiritual depth. More importantly, Baptism is what Christ commanded in the Great Commission, even though the legions of Protestants who look to Matthew 28:18-20 as the proof text for all manner of evangelistic endeavors rarely remember that Christ commanded his disciples to teach and baptize. Which means that one way to fulfill the Great Commission is to have more babies and see that they are baptized.

Another way to grow is to have more babies and see that they are taught everything Christ commanded. It is not sufficient to grow churches merely by reproduction and Baptism. The Church also needs to see that those babies are instructed in the faith. Of course, this preaching is not just for covenant children. According to the Shorter Catechism (89) preaching is a means of "convincing and converting sinners." One of the proof texts for that answer is Paul's teaching in Romans 10 that people will not hear the Gospel without preaching. Paul didn't ask, "How shall they hear without a clown, a dance, or liturgical drama?" And that's because he taught that preaching is the means that God has ordained both to convince and convert sinners, and to build up believers in holiness and comfort. In other words, the Word inscripturated and the Word incarnate are very specific about the right techniques for church growth; they are the divinely given and divinely commanded means of Word and Sacrament.

On the basis of scriptural teaching, then, one could well argue that as opposed to the industrial and impersonal methods of church growth, the correct method of growing the Church is inherently agrarian and personal. And one of the wisest contemporary proponents of agrarian and local ways is the poet and farmer, Wendell Berry who lives and writes in Kentucky. In perhaps his most compelling book, The Unsettling of America, Berry contrasts industrialism and agrarianism in ways that are remarkably-though largely unknowingly-apt for highlighting the differences between church growth expertise and the ministry of Word and Sacrament:

I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of the farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health-his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? … The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order-human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to the other order and to mystery. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, "hard facts"; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. (5)

Not only does Berry bring into bolder relief the differences between marketing models and covenantal patterns of church growth, he also underscores the fundamental discrepancy between a minister who works according to the logic of church growth and the pastors and fathers who tend God's flock in their particular pastures of congregation and family, respectively.

As far-fetched as traditional methods of growing the Church might seem to people who live in the suburbs, shop at supermarkets, and think the Amish are quaint, others have also noticed the usefulness of Berry's insights for the Church. For instance, Eugene H. Peterson says of Berry's book, The Unsettling of America, that every time Berry "writes 'farm' I substitute 'parish' or 'congregation.' It works every time." Which means that comparing church growth experts or their clerical sheep to industrialists is not any more far-fetched than comparing a pastor's duties to those of a farmer. The kind of growth that church-growthers look for has everything to do with numbers and solvency-what does it take to maintain this particular church enterprise; what are the demographics; what products do we need to offer; how can we build brand loyalty? But the pastor's orientation, being different from that of a Wal-Mart manager, looks upon the needs of his flock no matter how large, sees those needs from the perspective of spiritual and physical health whether the flock agrees or not, and looks for growth that is qualitative and lasting. Instead of looking for ways to attract outsiders, the pastor knows that his primary responsibility is to feed his own flock and ensure their growth in grace. This explains why so many church growth experts sound more like professional managers than men of the cloth. And that may also explain why Peterson says of Berry that he has learned "more usable pastoral theology" from him than from any of "his academic professors."

Success or Proclamation?

When confessional Protestants begin to worry about the size of their churches, they should recognize that they are coming dangerously close to territory reserved for God. Only God knows how full or big our churches should be. Still, the question lurking in the background of discussions about church growth always comes back to the unsaved. Covenantal models of ministry may be wholesome and endearing, but if we rely on birth, Baptism, and preaching, won't lots of people go unsaved? In other words, in an ideal world the organic ways of the Church would be desirable. But we don't live in an ideal world and to reach all of the lost we need to exploit every means possible, from the Internet to bumper stickers.

This is a view common in conservative Protestant circles. But it is an odd one for any Christian who claims to believe in election. For the logic implicit in most models of church growth is that the Church won't grow and the lost won't be found unless we devise new schemes for growth and evangelism. Yet if we take seriously the words of the Westminster Confession (III), that the number of those predestinated unto eternal life is "so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished," what happens to the logic of modern church growth experts who appear to assume that the potential for growth is limitless? There is a difference between saying that we can identify the elect, and therefore do not need to proclaim the Gospel to everyone and, on the other hand, concluding that church growth is only limited by human ambitions. Instead of being depressed that our churches are sometimes small or that new converts are sometimes rare, it could be that we should be delighted with the progress of the Gospel at whatever pace that God has ordained from before the creation of the world. In the same way, then, that it might be wrong for Christians to lust after a new car, it may also be unhealthy to long for bigger churches. In both cases, God is sovereign and it is the Christian's duty to accept God's ordained limits-or better put, to rejoice over each lost coin that is found.

Typically the doctrine of election is a comfort to individual believers because it teaches that God is sovereign in salvation and eternal life does not depend on the fickle whims of the human heart. But the doctrine of election is also a tremendous comfort to the Church corporately. Salvation does not depend on clever programs, strategic plans, or marketing savvy. It depends utterly upon God and his mercy. The Church, accordingly, has a tremendous responsibility to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments, while parents have the equally large duty of rearing their children in the faith of their Baptism. The Church does not need to be in a constant state of anxiety, thinking up new ways of reaching the lost. The right techniques of church growth are the means of grace that God established when our Lord commissioned the apostles to disciple the nations by Word and Sacrament. These techniques are not flashy. In fact, they are rather low key. But as the Bible reveals, God has a habit of saving his people through means that the world considers foolish. And that is because, as Paul told the Corinthians, God wants everyone to see "the transcendent power" of salvation belongs to him, "not to us" (2 Cor. 4:7).

1 [ Back ] Lyle Schaller, "You Can't Believe Everything You Hear About Church Growth," Leadership Vol. 18 (Winter 1997), 49.
2 [ Back ] Ibid., 50.
3 [ Back ] Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street, Selling Out the Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 125.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 125.
5 [ Back ] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996), 7-8.
Thursday, July 5th 2007

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