The Ethnocentricity of the American Church Growth Movement

Michael S. Horton
Monday, May 1st 2000
May/Jun 2000

In October of 1999, a group of missiologists, missionaries, and church leaders gathered in Brazil for an important event sponsored by the World Evangelical Fellowship, based in Singapore. These leaders from fifty-three countries, many of them from the two-thirds world, rallied to the cause of world mission-but with a somewhat surprising twist. As Christianity Today editor David Neff reported, attention came to focus on the criticism of North American paternalism (December 6, 1999). And the form of that paternalism? Pragmatic marketing paradigms, among others.

As Neff reports, Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar went after the “management missiology” whose “distinctive note … is to reduce Christian mission to a manageable enterprise.” “Escobar called this statistical approach ‘anti-theological’ and said it ‘has no theological or pastoral resources to cope with the suffering and persecution involved because it is geared to provide guaranteed success.” He was not alone, as Neff’s report observes. “Joseph D’Souza, chair of the All India Christian Council, also indicted missiological trends that ‘have tended to turn communication [of the Gospel] into a technique where we market a product called “salvation.” The consumer is the sinner and the marketer is the missionary.'” Frustration was expressed concerning the obsession with quantifiable success, where crusades, marketing, and other campaign blitzes were expected to usher in the consummation by the year 2000. But American strategists are not apparently shaken in their confidence. Steve Hoke of Church Resource Ministries responded with a familiar refrain, “If all truth is God’s truth, we can borrow principles from marketing. Jesus was very felt-need-oriented in his approach.”

The fruit of the meeting’s reflections was the Iguassu Affirmation. The statement is divided into the following sections: a preamble, which explains the occasion of the declaration; declarations, which include “the absolute authority of the God-breathed Scriptures,” acknowledging, “We are heirs of the great Christian confessions handed down to us.” Also emphasized in this section is the triune action in creation, redemption, and final restoration. The third section sets forth the key affirmations necessary in our time: the lordship of Christ over the world and his Church, his status as “the unique revelation of God and the only Savior of the world,” and the need to proclaim the Gospel and apply it to the wide range of human needs. The real business of spiritual warfare, which has often been sidelined by more sensational approaches, involves opposition to the spread of the Gospel, which brings suffering to the faithful Church.

Commitments in the Affirmation

The next section is most relevant to our purposes in this article: Commitments. After stating the trinitarian foundation of mission, the statement declares, “We confess that our biblical and theological reflection has sometimes been shallow and inadequate. We also confess that we have frequently been selective in our use of texts rather than being faithful to the whole revelation. We commit ourselves to engage in renewed biblical and theological studies shaped by mission, and to pursue a missiology and practice shaped by God’s Word, brought to life and light by the Holy Spirit.” Sensitivity to diverse cultures is emphasized, while rejecting the adequacy of religious pluralism; an emphasis on spiritual warfare has too often sidelined the real issue of sin and grace. Further, “We are grateful for many helpful insights gained from the social sciences. We are concerned that these should be subject to the authority of Scripture. Therefore we call for a healthy critique of mission theories that depend heavily on marketing concepts and missiology by objectives.” It is no wonder that the commitments, therefore, would also include a paragraph on “The Cross and Suffering” and that there would be a complaint that “Inadequate theology, especially in respect to the doctrine of the church …” has inhibited missions.

Having been a part of a similar gathering of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, with similar concerns, issuing a similar statement (viz., the 1996 Cambridge Declaration), I was particularly intrigued by the fact that two-thirds world missiological sentiment appears to be far more self-critical than North American Evangelicalism. Our concerns have been somewhat marginalized, while much of the same thinking appears to be emerging out of a quite different context. In my own limited missions experience and travel to two-thirds world churches, I have seen this played out time and time again, with the clear sentiment expressed, “Keep American pragmatism and consumerism out of our churches!”

All of this has led me increasingly to think that many of the movements in American Evangelicalism-especially those purporting to be multicultural and outreach-minded-are actually promoting and exporting a curiously sectarian and ethnocentric religion. No wonder my Reformed and Presbyterian brothers and sisters in rapidly growing churches in Nigeria, Brazil, and China complain of American paternalism.

A related example may serve to illustrate the point. At the most recent Lambeth Conference, the Anglican communion’s gathering of bishops every ten years or so in Canterbury, England, the irrepressible Bishop John Spong of Newark, New Jersey, vanguard of radical liberalism, accused the African bishops (who are, generally speaking, far more theologically conservative than their European and American counterparts) of being just a step removed from animism, after all. That explains their belief in “superstition” (i.e., God, sin, salvation, the resurrection, etc.). The outcry against his remarks required Spong to apologize for his racism and cultural insensitivity. What the African bishops were really after, however, was Spong’s repentance for having rejected Christianity in pulpit and print.

But can we really compare Spong’s liberalism, a blander version of which has made two-thirds world bishops consider schism from the Anglican communion, to the church growth movement? To be sure, there are certain important differences. For instance, few American evangelicals would explicitly reject the authority of Scripture or its supernatural claims. (In fact, many would add to both considerably!) But when evangelical George Barna, for instance, tells us that the key principle of Christian communication is that “the audience, not the message is sovereign,” aren’t we really dealing methodologically with the same idea as theologian Paul Tillich’s “method of correlation,” in which the world determines the questions and Scripture (perhaps) gives its answers? Hasn’t much of modern theology argued, at least methodologically, along the “felt needs” approach to outreach?

Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, is the Anglican theological college of Oxford University and during my residence there as a Ph.D. student I witnessed this tension firsthand. Visiting two-thirds world scholars and ministers were predictably more committed to orthodoxy than their homegrown counterparts. They were also typically more committed to sticking to the liturgy, questioning “experiments” in contemporary liturgies whose ostensible purpose was to encourage multiculturalism and diversity. The only diversity present, according to many of these brothers and sisters, was a distinctly Anglo-American diversity. For the most part, they saw the latter as giving up the centuries-old and transcultural pattern of unity in worship for a mess of pottage.

In my present teaching position at Westminster Seminary, California, my contact with Nigerian students has reinforced this experience. Through the enormous missionary activity of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (and more recently, that of missiologists Timothy and Dorothy Monsma, now at the seminary), God has raised up a Reformed church there that is rapidly surpassing the number of North American Reformed believers in communicant membership. But the success is as deep as it is wide. Nigerian students are surprised by the extent to which the Reformed churches here have traded their rich liturgical, ecclesiological, and in many cases doctrinal heritage for a distinctively American identity shaped by American revivalism. In their home churches, enormous growth coincides with rigorous demands in terms of church membership, especially catechesis. They complain that American sister churches tend to be undermined in their Word-and-Sacrament ministry by playing to consumerism and pragmatism.

All of This

But is this coincidence of growth and rigorous commitment to theologically driven patterns merely a two-thirds world phenomenon? Not at all. Again, I can appeal to my own experience. About five years ago, Rev. Kim Riddlebarger and I planted a church in Anaheim, California, which quickly became a refuge for a rising generation of over-stereotyped Gen-X’ers and a fair number of older groupings (yes, even Boomers). They are tired of being segmented out, as they are in every other area of life, as a market niche. They like learning the faith while sitting next to older folks who have “fought the good fight” even though they, too, felt like giving up at times. Most of them fairly new converts, with great zeal for reaching out to unbelievers, these folks joined other generations in forming a community centered on Christ. Our technique was a rather simple Word-and-Sacrament ministry, including discipline (viz., elders visiting the members and assisting them in their Christian life; deacons actively caring for the welfare of needy members, etc.). “Unchurched” visitors are present every week and some of them return, some of them even join.

I really do believe that those who are genuinely “seeking,” that is, who really have been given an interest by God in the things of God, far from being impressed, are actually put off by the paternalism that treats them like children. They expect to “have it their way” at Burger King but not at church. They are here not because they have the correct questions but precisely because they don’t. They may know what their felt needs are, but they come because they want to have some new needs, deeper needs, explored and brought to light. They are tired of being twenty-four-hour consumers and want to be parishioners-they want to be cared for and not catered to. And some of them become gripped by a sense of their own sinful condition that they never had-and wouldn’t have-apart from the Living Word encountered in preaching and Sacrament. They receive something that they never realized they needed: the Gospel. This church is not a model, but just one of many churches across the country that is, however feebly, intent on passing the faith that we have received down to the next generation, and to see it spread, even as it has, by God’s grace, to us who “were once not a people, but now are the people of God.”

I know that there are stodgy, seeker-resistant Reformed and Presbyterian churches, and we have challenged this tendency in this magazine as well. But we simply must resist the widespread conclusion that the church growth movement is a success, even on its own terms. According to one of its milder advocates, in fact, it has not led to any real statistical growth but has simply rearranged the furniture. (1) Those raised in the often mindless and heartless traditionalism of one sort or another simply move to the megachurch where “life” is equated with age-segmenting programs and state-of-the-art sound systems. But where will these folks be when these churches are “unplugged”?

We must resist the logic, then, which suggests that we need to rid our churches of a substantially Word-and-Sacrament based ministry in order to be truly engaged in outreach, mission, and multicultural unity. A growing chorus of church growth “experts” encourages us to abandon even the sermon in favor of a more entertaining medium, despite the apostolic promise that “faith comes by preaching”-not only in “tradition-bound” churches, but “for the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Modern evangelicals in America have not given up being tradition-bound (as if anybody could), but are merely bound by a narrower, younger, ethnocentric tradition that is deeply indebted to the very worldliness it routinely decries. The logic that comes across in the church growth literature is not only market logic, it’s the logic of white, upscale suburban marketing. Ever read a good book or know of a famous church whose goal is to show you how to build a megachurch in a depressed urban area? It’s a religion of the mall, by the mall, and for the mall.

Furthermore, make of them what you will, the ancient creeds, confessions, and liturgies represent the most genuinely multicultural agenda. The Gospel preached has been “the power of God unto salvation” in every culture since Jesus issued his great commission. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have been effectual means of grace since he ordained them and, by his Spirit working through the Word, “added daily to the church those who were being saved.” Remarkably, it is often urged that the use of an explicit liturgy, however lightly drawing on ancient sources, represents a “Eurocentric” perspective. But how so, when we are talking about prayers and forms that often are either direct biblical citations or date back to the first few centuries and come from Palestine, Asia, and Africa? This is more Eurocentric than services inspired by late night television? At least the music is Eurocentric, many say, when so many of the classic hymns follow the style of classical music. Do we expect Africans to sing Bach chorales? Of course, the classic hymns are not patterned on classical styles, but, as cultural critic Kenneth Myers and others have pointed out, on folk styles. And not only on European folk styles but on the Negro spirituals and the very multicultural style of Gregorian plainchant (the inspiration of the Genevan tunes, for instance). (If we sang more of the Psalms, this Eurocentric argument would make even less sense.) What American evangelicals are giving up is far less diverse, both in terms of time and place, than what they are embracing.

So what if Boomers are too lazy to listen to a sermon, participate in a liturgy, and sing the faith of generations that lived before we were graced with their appearance on the stage of human history? And why should a generation that has largely sacrificed little, prospered enormously, lost interest in God and truth, contributed self-esteem to philosophy, and the sit-com to cultural enrichment decide how much of Christianity we keep for the next generation? Are we going to abandon the “cloud of witnesses” across time and geography to satisfy the narcissism of a single generation in a single place? The day that “outreach” is set against God’s ordained means of grace is the day that we cease to plant churches of Christ and instead open franchises of religious consumerism. Who feels more at home in the spiritual equivalent of a shopping mall than a middle-class American? Some multiculturalism, isn’t it?

Our brothers and sisters gathered in Iguassu, Brazil, this past October might teach us a thing or two about what it really means to be multicultural.

1 [ Back ] Bill Hull, "Is the Church Growth Movement Really Working?" in Power Religion, ed. Michael Horton (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), 139-59.

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Michael S. Horton
Michael Horton is editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido.
Monday, May 1st 2000

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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