Tendrils of the Church Growth Movement
Report of the Michigan District Church Growth Study Committee
in response to Resolution #2 of Floor Committee 6 at the 2003 Special Convention
Aaron Frey (chairman),
Jon Arndt, Guy Purdue, John Weaver-Hudson
Draft by Jon Arndt. Essay by Aaron Frey.
Research by Guy Purdue. Edited by John Weaver-Hudson.
Presented to the 107th Convention of the Michigan District of the WELS
June 10, 2008
The Church Growth Study Committee of the Michigan District was born of no small argument on the District Convention floor on Wednesday, June 11, 2003. Many feared that the committee was formed to accuse specific people or organizations within the synod. Whereas 6 of the motion forming the committee voiced concerns that reading of Church Growth material might affect our theology. Whereas 7 asserted that some groups within the WELS were “encouraging the use of Church Growth strategies and methods” and “seeking insights and guidance from prominent Church Growth representatives.” More concern met Resolved C. In it the District resolved that “this study also give attention to the influence that CGM thought and methodology may
have had or may be having on the efforts of groups affiliated with or funded by the WELS.” Was this resolution trying to imply something? Was this committee being created to supplant the existing structures for discipline and doctrinal oversight in our beloved synod?
District President Seifert answered with a resounding “no,” echoed by the rest of the Praesidium. This committee, itself, is under the oversight of the members of the Praesidium and the Conference of Presidents. It has no authority to exercise corporate discipline within the synod. It desires no such authority.
Under the direction of the Michigan District Praesidium and informed by the resolution that created it, this committee understands itself as assigned the kind of study that we all do all the time. That is to say, we are doing the kind of work in Scripture that allows us as pastors to “test the spirits” of our times (1 John 4:1). A committee created to test a particular “spirit” that is out there can dig deeper and think harder about the assigned topic than most of us as individuals can do, no matter how much we would like to. Armed with prayer and God’s unbreakable Word, then, we set out to do that.
Our work required the reading of many books for and against the philosophies and methods of the Church Growth Movement. We recognized among them paradigmatic reading for those wishing to understand the
theological underpinnings of the Church Growth Movement and its dangers. We commend Reverend Robert Koester’s excellent work, Law and Gospel: Foundation of Lutheran Ministry, with Special Reference to the Church Growth Movement (NPH 1997), which could well be considered required reading for anyone attempting to keep their scriptural bearings straight in a sea of Church Growth literature.
Despite this and some other excellent works, we weren’t far into our reading when we realized that the majority of the material both in favor of and opposed to Church Growth principles was largely lacking in faithful exegesis. We often found authors repeatedly misusing certain “pet” passages of Scripture. Therefore, our committee work included exegesis of commonly quoted passages, some of which we disseminated among the circuits of the District for study and feedback.
Another major part of our work was simple dialogue with people. Both the committee and the Praesidium felt that use of literature and ideas that originated in Church Growth circles had created an air of distrust in our ministerium. We found that pastors were often labeled from afar, though little discussion occurred with the pastors themselves. So members of our committee attended various seminars, workshops and conferences. We also made phone calls and met face-to-face with various brothers in the ministry. We wish we could have done more, but we were also happy with the contacts we did make.
In this work our ultimate goal was and is to strengthen the unity within our synod. Such unity is maintained by study of the Word and practicing the love it commands. The practice of testing the spirits does not fulfill that command by itself, nor does shirking the testing of spirits so as not to strain a relationship (unionism). If we recognize error or think we do, we must follow through by sharing it with our brothers, either one-on-one or publicly, as the situation may dictate (Matthew 18:15-18; Galatians 2:11-21*). This course of action is love, since it is the course of action toward which our Savior God directs us (1 John 4:16).
The opposite of sinful love is fear (1 John 4:18). Not love but fear causes Christians to judge one another by hearsay. Not love but fear prevents us from warning of error when we see it. Fear may constrain us from speaking up when something seems amiss because we fear making someone look bad. Fear may prevent us from face-to-face discussion because we fear that the reply we’ll hear may expose our own theological weaknesses. Perhaps we fear we’re bad at debate.
We begin our report in this way to make it clear that this paper can in no way replace mutual encouragement and admonition. We pray that it will encourage the brothers to be in the Word and to speak together about any concerns they may have, so that we may be one just as our Savior longed for in his high-priestly prayer (John 17:11). We pray for guidance and the blessing of the Holy Spirit on our work. We pray for the wisdom to see and to slay our own pride through the might of God’s Word. We desire the mutual consolation of brothers as we consider the fruit of this labor. We pray that God will use it to bring us closer to the truth, to each other and to
* Paul’s rebuke was public, but the rebuke was nonetheless directed at Peter and was for his sake, not merely the crowd’s. While brothers may need to discuss public statements to determine if a rebuke is even warranted, actual correction is offered to the erring brother, not just to those who heard. Convert to an asterisk in main text and here.
The paper has three parts. The first part is a brief overview of the Church Growth Movement (hereafter abbreviated CGM). The second part treats specific problems in the theology of the CGM. The third part treats ways in which CGM may reach out to Lutheran pastors and other leaders. We can then draw on parts one and two to help us avoid error and to encourage one another in the truth.
First understand that there is no easy way for a confessional Lutheran to pin down precisely what the CGM teaches. When Lutherans look at doctrine, we look at binding confessions of faith and the public statements of synods and denominations. CGM has no Book of Concord. It is not a church body. As a self-proclaimed “movement,” it is always a moving target. Our quotes, then, are but samples that strike us as representing common and central aspects of CGM thinking. There is at least one place where we can logically begin, however. The American Society for Church Growth has a website with a “working definition of church growth”:
Church growth is that careful discipline which investigates the nature, the function, and the health of Christian churches, as they relate to the effective implementation of the Lord’s Great Commision [sic] to make disciples of all peoples (Matthew 28:19-20). It is a spiritual conviction, yet it is practical, combining the eternal principles of God’s Word with the practical insights of social and behavioral sciences.
CGM literature of the 1970’s and 1980’s showed a growing concern to maintain an official definition distinguishing general church growth strategies arising naturally in Christendom from the rigid, research-driven efforts of Donald McGavran’s stricter followers.* The practice of capitalizing “Church Growth Movement” was begun by the movement itself to distinguish its products from those of others. A working definition like this one distinguishes authentic CGM material from others that “…are trying to promote a program or method that may be remotely connected with the church or growth, but they may not have any real connection with the teaching and practice of the Church Growth Movement.” (Hunter 1994: 60, 62)
Those present here might more easily identify the CGM by recognizing certain hallmark terms and tools found in the literature (felt needs, the Resistance-Receptivity Axis, “building bridges,” spiritual gift surveys, etc.). Each one invokes a seemingly endless stream of theological issues. Our goal is to be clear, concise, charitable and confessional while providing a useful summary of the movement. Please bear with us, brothers! Trying to define a non-creedal movement in terms that confessional Lutherans can relate to is not easy. An “official” definition, however, helps to do that.
* We have not included a separate section of the paper dedicated to the history of the CGM, nor of its founder, Don McGavran. Relevant facts from the history of the movement are rather dispersed throughout the paper where they are needed as background to a given point.
It’s no coincidence that Matthew 28:19-20 is centrally located in CGM’s self-definition. All CGM thinking hangs on it. CGM is driven by it. The whole movement judges its worth on the basis of its exegesis of this passage—and especially “make disciples.” C. Peter Wagner, one of the fathers of the CGM in America, says,
Sowing the seed is not an end in itself; it is a means toward the end of producing the fruit…. If we follow the harvest principle, evaluate our activities in terms…not of how many missionaries we
send, but how many lost people we reach and bring to Jesus Christ. We will never be satisfied with “good” outreach programs that are supposed to bring people to Christ but do not. (Wagner 1987:
This kind of “How many disciples are we making?” analysis pervades everything CGM. No one denies that there is merit in evaluating our work on the basis of mission, but there are also no corrective forces in the CGM that approximate what we received at our latest synod convention. Joel Fredrich reminded us that “the label ‘Great Commission’ is not part of the text and should not be given too much weight. We don’t want to assume from the outset that this text should take precedence in our thinking to the neglect of all other commission passages” (Fredrich 15).
Lutheran observers understandably fear that this emphasis on effectiveness in making disciples reveals a doctrine of conversion in which the human bearer of the gospel personally controls the power to convert someone. None of the books that we studied explicitly declared that the proclaimer of the message himself actually brought people to faith. CGM authors emphatically deny this. That, they say, is the Holy Spirit’s work.
You must keep in mind, however, that the CGM does not debate the meaning of µa..te.sate
(“make disciples”). To the CGM, it cannot simply mean teach. It cannot be anything less than to teach in a way that you effectively change a heart. To them, this command has not been “fulfilled” until every person in the world has been made into a mature believer in Christ, and CGM practitioners will not quit until their Lord’s command is finally fulfilled.
The Christian church is growing at a faster rate than the population growth of the world and,
therefore, the ratio and the work that is to be accomplished for world evangelization is diminishing. The fulfillment of the Great Commission is within reach!
…There is only one element that can hinder the fulfillment of the Great Commission. It is not a
political entity or a subversive government. It is not a secular ideology or a modernistic philosophy. Not even the powers of hell itself can stop the building of the church (Matt. 16:18). The only entity that can stop the fulfillment of the Great Commission is an inept, ill-focused, unprepared, misguided, visionless Christian church. The Church Growth Movement will continue to help the church to get on target toward world evangelization. [emphasis in original] (Hunter 1994: 95)
CGM characteristically strains another phrase in Matthew 28 beyond its original meaning. Hunter wrote:
Traditionally, the words of Matthew 28: 19 – 20 have been translated in English, “Make disciples of all nations.” Reflecting one of the most important and perhaps the most controversial of the biblical Church Growth principles, Church Growth advocates (as well as most missiologists today) translate the words panta ta ethne as “of all peoples,” or “of all people groups.” This is based on the theological conviction that God’s primary strategy for reaching the world is not through nations or geopolitical entities, but through the identification of people groups. This has significant ramifications for the development of evangelistic strategies… It is reflected in the Church Growth principle called the People Group Approach to World Evangelization, which, years ago, was identified by Church Growth People as the Homogeneous Unit Principle. (Hunter 1997:33)
The Homogeneous Unit Principle is based on the observation that growth in the church often happens among friends and family. Exegetically, McGavran hung the principle on his unique, linguistically unsupportable translation of “all nations,” saying that it is God’s will that the gospel be more effective when it is heard from someone who shares your same general culture and ethnicity.
Hunter says that CGM literature has been greatly criticized for this. The principle, as he implies, has been refined and reworked—even renamed. The term “group conversions” (even referred to as sudden changes in the “group mind”) was refined into “Multi-Individual Decisions.” More refinement may yet come.
Eddie Gibbs, one of the earliest leaders in the movement who attempted to put a somewhat more robust theological frame around its principles, notes this refinement of expression in his book, I Believe in Church Growth. However, the cardinal thought still remains: The Holy Spirit has built a power into like-minded groups that results in a catalysis of the conversion process among all the individuals within it. He only corrects that groups never come to faith as groups: “Although there is a powerful chain-reaction or 'knock-on' effect, each individual is personally responsible for his decision within the total group dynamic” (Gibbs 119). This is central
to the CGM’s approach to evangelism.
“Nature, Function, and Health”
Dr. Kent Hunter is especially useful in understanding the CGM because he was a pastor in the LC-MS prior to becoming “The Church Doctor” on Christian radio. He tends to want to relate the tenets of the CGM to the Reformation and to the sacraments. He earned a doctorate from Fuller Theological Seminary, has written 30 CGM books, and consults with churches professionally using CGM tactics. Bestselling leadership guru John Maxwell extols him on the churchdoctor.org website as “the authority on church growth in America today” (accessed 6.2008). An extended quote from his book Foundations for Church Growth: Biblical Basics for the Local Church greatly helps us understand what the American Society for Church Growth means by “the nature,
the function, and the health of Christian churches as they relate to the effective implementation of the Lord’s Great Commision [sic]”:
Since the church is a living organism, church growth teaches that it is not exceptional for the
church to grow. It is natural. More than that, it is supernatural. Sometimes, reasons (or excuses!) are given why certain churches will not grow. Some say that no one should expect growth in certain churches. That kind of thinking is not in line with the biblical teaching about the nature of the
church. Every living organism in the world has one characteristic in common: growth. Every church is created by God. Every church, like every organism, is undergoing constant renewal The church is alive, and growth should be expected as the norm, not the exception. Occasionally, a church is found in which little numerical growth can be expected. But quality growth should always occur
What about the church that is not growing? Is something wrong? Exactly! The church that is not
growing has a problem. It is not a problem with the Lord of the church. The problem always lies
with the human part of the church -people. All people are sinners and fall short of God's glory
(Rom. 3:23). Original sin affects every person. Original sin is the fact that every person, by nature, is infected with sin. That is why forgiveness in Christ is so important. That is why the delivery systems for God's love and acceptance are so important -the Word, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the community of believers who share and care. The church can grow. Every church can grow. Every church should also be a setting in which people can grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Every church should be a living organism where non-believers are being reached with the Good News of Jesus Christ. If growth is not occurring, usually something is wrong: there is sickness in this organism called church. Church growth diagnoses the sickness and shows ways in which the people can allow God to bring healing and health to the church. When that happens, growth occurs. It is natural. It is supernatural. (Hunter 1994: 36)
We will come back to these concepts in part 2.
“Effective implementation of the Lord’s Great Commision [sic]” simply means getting the job done. What’s the job? As Hunter shows, the job is to turn lost people into responsible followers of Christ. But if the CGM leaves the power to convert a person in the Holy Spirit’s hands as it claims to do, then what can it mean by “effective implementation”?
The answer is key to understanding the CGM, because the CGM claims to be able to help churches fulfill this command from Jesus. Indeed, when the CGM calls its principles effective, it means that your church will grow when you apply them. Purpose Driven series author, Rick Warren, has a metaphor explaining classic CGM thinking on the meaning of effective church work:
If you take a class on surfing, you’ll be taught everything you need to know about surfing: how
to choose the right equipment; how to use it properly; how to recognize a “surfable” wave; how to catch a wave and ride it as long as possible; and, most important of all, how to get off a wave
without wiping out. But your never find a course that teaches “how to build a wave.”
Surfing is the art of riding waves that God builds. God makes the waves; surfers just ride
them…. Growth cannot be produced by man! Only God makes the church grow…
Our job as church leaders, like experienced surfers, is to recognize a wave of God’s Spirit and
ride it. It is not our responsibility to make waves but to recognize how God is working in the world and join him in the endeavor.
Today God is creating wave after wave of receptive people to the gospel. Due to a plethora of
problems in our world, more people seem to be open to the good news of Christ than at any other time this century. Unfortunately, because our churches haven’t been taught the needed skills, we are missing the spiritual waves that could bring revival, health, and explosive growth to our churches.
At Saddleback Church we’ve never trued to build a wave. That’s God’s business. But we have
tried to recognize the waves God was sending our way, and we’ve learned to catch them. We’ve
learned to use the right equipment to ride those waves and we’ve learned the importance of balance. We’ve also learned to get off dying waves whenever we sensed God wanted to do something new.
The amazing thing is this: The more skilled we become in riding waves of growth, the more God
sends! (Warren 13-15, emphasis original)
This is key to CGM thinking. Effective is used exactly as it sounds. Effective is what works to reach your goal. In CGM thinking, that means discovering whatever practical steps successfully keep a church growing and then doing those steps for as long as (and only as long as) it works. Hunter says,
“Success” can be a slippery word. When church growth advocates use the word, it is always in
connection with obtaining the intended result. The intended result of church growth is always that disciples are being made. (Hunter 1994: 85)
“Careful Discipline which Investigates” with “Social and Behavioral Sciences”
Those new to the CGM are often most overwhelmed by the amount of data. Church growth practitioners collect data. They collect lots of data.
They emphasize, however, that the data is but a means to an end. To the CGM, data tracks what God is doing. Discovering trends in the data means discovering how God is currently working so that you can shift tactics and join in (Rick Warren’s “waves”). This is why social and behavioral sciences are so important to the CGM. Experts are quick to point out, however, that they are not just after data showing numeric growth in the church. They are especially interested in measuring the quality of the faith that is at work in those who join.
I am not interested in decisions for Christ totaled up as people raise their hands or come forward
after a crusade. I am not interested in Christians who profess faith in Christ but do not demonstrate it in their lives. These numbers are unimportant.
But I am vitally interested in lost men and women who put their faith in Jesus Christ and are
born again. I am interested in true disciples who take up their cross daily to follow Jesus. …I am
interested in responsible church members who continue “steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in breaking bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42) as did believers in the Jerusalem church. (Wagner 1987: 23)
Hunter says, “Making disciples is the qualitative aspect of church growth.” He defines a disciple as a “follower, learner, one who is equipped to do ministry” ( Hunter 1997: 33).
“Careful discipline” means that the church will study local demographics, cultural trends and the latest social research to figure out what attracts people to different events. This is the connection between CGM and the “felt needs” approach to evangelism. This is also why the movement uses tools like the Resistance/Receptivity Axis, which charts a person’s openness to the gospel based on life circumstances and behavior. (Hunter 1997: 246) CGM advocates use similar tools to discover what leads church members to adopt a particular set of behaviors and attitudes that they consider to be consistent with a true disciple’s behaviors and attitudes. Cutting-edge tools of the social and behavioral sciences are used to discover critical motivators for growth. Eric Arnson of the Willow Creek Association explains in his article, “Is It Possible to Measure the
I was definitely intrigued with the notion of applying to the church world what we’d learned in the marketplace – and developing a greater understanding of how people grow spiritually. We wanted to use the commitment model to peer into the hearts of people so we could understand what drives increasing love for God and increasing commitment to Christ….We wanted to discover what was most important – what worked (the drivers) and what didn’t work (the barriers) to create a growing level of commitment to Christ. (Hawkins & Parkinson 90)
We begin our second part by making something very clear that is often obscured in CGM literature: The CGM is not neutral, practical advice waiting to be plugged into any theological framework, a common conviction in the early CGM. But, as the working definition at ascg.org clearly states, “Church growth … is a spiritual conviction … combining the eternal principles of God’s Word with the practical insights of social and
behavioral sciences.” Former Lutheran Hunter admits:
Church growth is a theological conviction. It cannot be denied. Becoming part of the Church
Growth Movement takes a theological stance. It is a movement in which Christians believe that the main purpose of the church is to grow. That includes inward growth as Christians mature. It
includes outward growth as God's people reach out with the Gospel. To be a church growth person is to believe that comprehensive growth is the reason for the existence of the church. Everything the church growth church does is based on the premise of growth. Internal and external growth determines the priorities, programs, worship, policies, budget, and the life of the congregation involved in the Church Growth Movement. Church growth requires a deep commitment to the theology of growth.(Hunter 1994: 35)
The Church Growth Movement uses data to establish theology
Part 1’s overview will have raised many theological questions for you as confessional Lutheran clergy, teachers and laymen. We begin to answer these questions through the most recent topic, the CGM’s use of data.
The CGM’s collection of data is a means to an end: discovering how to make disciples for Christ. That makes CGM inherently theological.
Theology is a loaded word. Most English-speaking people can use it as defined in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition): “the study of God.”
Please understand this! The foundational difference between biblical Lutheranism and the tenets of the CGM is how we establish theology. The basic difference between the orthodox Christian faith and the teachings of the CGM is how we learn about who the true God is and what he is like.
The classical approach judges the validity of any experience on the basis of previously established theological principles. In contrast, Church Growth leans toward a phenomenological approach which holds theological conclusions somewhat more tentatively and is open to revising them when necessary in the light of what is learned through experience. (Wagner, Arn, & Towns 33)
There is only one valid source for theology, and that is the mouth of God. Understand that statement’s full weight! “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18).
That same truth applies to the conversion of men. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Just as we cannot come to know the one, true God, unless he reveals himself to us, so we also cannot come to believe in him unless he himself creates that faith within us.
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father.” (John 6:4346)
Consider how this applies to determining if someone has come to faith or is mature in faith. “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). CGM waits to establish its theology until it can verify it through human observation, distrusting the Word of God. Hear these words, brothers, and take comfort in the knowledge that doing the Lord’s work with careful attention to all that our Savior teaches means building to his glory with an edifice that will last:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matthew 7:24-29)
Reveal is a newly published work from Willow Creek Community Church (South Barrington, Illinois). Most CGM books refer to Willow Creek or its head pastor, Bill Hybels. It is a showcase of CGM principles and “success.” Reveal tells the story of a change in the congregation’s in-house data collection using new methods that record people’s emotional and attitudinal responses. In the secular marketplace, this is used to measure “predictiveness,” that is, “whether or not someone is likely to behave a certain way or to try a new product” (Hawkins & Parkinson 25). Using both older data and information collected from 120 new, one-on-one interviews, Willow Creek’s research team developed three hypotheses about spiritual growth that they expected
the new research about emotions and attitudes to corroborate and expand upon:
1. There is a migration path for spiritual growth based on church activities
2. The most effective evangelism tool is a spiritual conversation
3. Spiritual relationships are a key driver of spiritual growth. (Hawkins & Parkinson 30)
The new attitudinal survey data challenged all three assumptions so fundamentally that the promotional video found at www.revealnow.com depicts Greg Hawkins, executive pastor at Willow Creek, dreaming of a new approach to ministry:
Our dream is that we fundamentally change the way we do church, that we take out a clean sheet of paper and we rethink all of our old assumptions—replace it with new insights, insights that are informed by research and rooted in Scripture.1
Is this research a good thing? Is it a good, honest self-evaluation leading the leaders closer to Christ? We can no more to peer into their hearts than they can peer into the hearts of their congregants. Our dear Lord Jesus tells us, however, that we can spot a false teacher by his fruit. Reveal is not a new start. In it CGM spokesmen still turn to human observation to learn about God and his ways. Reveal is not rooted in Scripture. It contains no exegesis and only a handful of passing Scripture quotes. The pre-text for the study’s working definition of spiritual growth was Matthew 22:37-39.* “We took that to mean that spiritual growth occurs as one’s love for
God and others increases,” the report states. So the surveys measured respondents’ levels of agreement to “statements like these:”
I love God more than anything.
I seek God’s guidance in every area of my life.
I have tremendous love for people I know and those I don’t. (Hawkins & Parkinson 29, 33)
Would a Pharisee agree strongly with those statements? Would a pagan Mormon’s levels of agreement with these statements accurately reflect maturity? If someone should object that we are not talking about people trained as Pharisees or Mormons, consider that the Willow Creek data indicated that the people most likely to leave their church came from the membership segment that the survey writers considered most mature in their faith. Why are their “most mature members” thinking about leaving? They are dissatisfied with the spiritual nourishment that Willow Creek offers. (Hawkins & Parkinson 53).
Some who dislike Willow Creek’s techniques might point to that last discovery and say, “See? That proves that you’re not doing it right.” But it doesn’t. It proves nothing Scriptural. That’s the real point. Theological conclusions drawn from statistics are built on shifting sand. Secular researchers know that the value of observational data declines significantly from the “hard” sciences (e.g., physics) to the “soft” sciences (e.g., sociology). As physicist Murray Gell-Mann put it, “Think how hard physics would be if particles could think” (Ariely 244). Theology takes that to a whole new level. God says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). Reveal exclaims with surprise, “We discovered that higher levels
of church activity did not predict increasing love for God or increasing love for other people” (Hawkins & Parkinson 35). But that’s not an objective analysis. The only thing that this data really tells us is that one time,
* Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
when some false teachers asked their active congregants from their shallow services if their deceptive hearts told them that they were more loving toward God and neighbor than most other people are, they got an unexpected answer.
The Church Growth Movement functions under a false theology of faith and conversion
The methods of the CGM and its conclusions drawn from heaped-up human observations reveal error in their teaching on the nature of faith and conversion. God teaches us what faith is: confidence or trust. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). People can have faith in all kinds of things. I trust my wife to be faithful to me. We trust President Seifert to preside over our conventions. I trust that this platform will hold me up, or I wouldn’t have dared step up onto it.
The particular trust that the Scriptures define as saving faith is trust in the one, true God. “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Saving faith trusts in God to be true and reliable, even to the point of entrusting him with our very lives: “Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth. I hate those who cling to worthless idols; I trust in the LORD” (Psalm 31:5-6). Saving faith trusts in Jesus as the Son of God and our Savior. He is the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the one who created all things.
And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You
diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37-40)
The Spirit of God explains through John in the prologue to his gospel:
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. (John 1:10-13)
Here the miracle of saving faith begins to offend our natural reason. This is, therefore, where human observation fails us and where trust in God becomes our only peace. What brings a person to faith and salvation? And, if it’s a free gift that everyone needs, why do some reject it?
The facts are declared very plainly in the clear, instructive words that come from God’s mouth. Is the difference a matter of human decision? No. John 1 and John 6 made that clear. By nature we cannot trust God or come to him. Conversion is an act of God in man.*
Men logically but wrongly conclude, then, that God must be to blame when someone rejects the gift. But the Scriptures say that he wants “all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4). He died for the whole world† and takes “no
* “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11). Is his call less sincere for some? Then Jesus is a liar.‡ Is the resistance of some less severe than others? “The sinful mind is hostile to God’s law. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Romans 8:7). There aren’t any dead people out there who are more likely to snap out of it than others. “Snapping out of it” is something that dead people just don’t do. And we are all dead by nature: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
The facts from God’s mouth are plain. If we come to faith and are saved, that is all to God’s glory. If we reject him, the fault is all our own. Our limited reason cannot fit these plain, scriptural facts into an elegant logical system. Our Lutheran Confessions accept this limit on our logic (FC XI). The non-creedal churches (post-Calvinist and Campbellite) that gave birth to the Church Growth Movement do not. They applaud whatever logic-chopping suits their taste, despite the violence done to God’s own words.
Consider again the movement’s use of the word effective in evangelism. Effective means reaching your intended goal. The goal of the CGM, which they consider attainable if only the churches of the world will diligently apply the right methods (cf. Hunter’s words on page 4 above), is to turn every person on earth into a mature disciple of Christ. Warren wrote, “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” (Warren 219)
A Christian who understands faith and conversion biblically knows there is but one key to a person’s heart: the gospel in Word and Sacrament. CGM is practiced at appearing to give the Holy Spirit ultimate credit for a conversion. Lacking a common confession about the Holy Spirit’s means, however, they never know just how the Holy Spirit is going to get the job done today. All they have is the shifting sand of their observations about what he appears to be doing. CGM research, looking for the secret of unlocking hearts, credits incidental, observable circumstances with decisive power. Note the alternate, non-gospel powers at work in these quotes:
Evangelism does not simply happen through persuasive individuals, but through communities of
believers, who give credibility to the proclamation, by demonstrating something of the reality of
what they speak. (Gibbs 187).
The gift of evangelist is the special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to share the gospel with unbelievers in such a way that men and women become Jesus’ disciples and responsible members of the Body of Christ. (Wagner 2005: 164)
What was especially amazing, is not only that the Apostles spoke languages new to them, but that they were enabled to master the subtleties of these specialized communications enough to have profound impact. Each group knew that message was meant for them. The first evangelists did not expect their audience to hear the Gospel in the language and style that the apostles preferred. They adjusted to their different audiences. Open to the Spirit, the apostles were able to customize their message. They used many “borrowed” styles to proclaim the same substance. (Luecke 46).
† “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
‡ “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)
I believe that genuine caring is the engine in each local church that propels its growth. This nurture dimension is essential to church health. If people see and experience a care-giving environment, their lives will change, and their friendship networks will be impacted as well. (George 47)
After all, effective evangelism has both social and spiritual aspects. The ability to hear the gospel is sometimes enhanced by a sense of acceptance from the evangelizer (see Chapter 5). The life of Christ in a loving cell group may be presented so attractively and powerfully that conversions may occur even without formal soul-winning skills on the part of the leader!
Someone may join a cell and four months later report, “I met God this week.” Everyone asks,
“How? Nobody here explained the plan of salvation.” The person answers, “In desperation, I got on my knees and said ‘O God, help!’ I’ve always felt accepted by this group; now I sense an
acceptance by God.” There was an experience of conversion! Now the group must help the new
believer put a theological form around his or her experience. (George 190)
This evangelism-touting movement does not understand how people come to faith. Shouting out that it will make every person in the world a disciple of Christ, it is led by false teachers who destroy Jesus’ words: “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31). An unscriptural, unstable doctrine of conversion, theology based on human observation, and a distorted eisegesis of “make disciples” (i.e., get former pagans to say that they feel like they love God more than anything else) combine in a movement of strategies based on human appeal, not on the use of the gospel. Luecke provides a vivid example. He feels that recent studies have
discovered a “new kind of believer”:
Many were and still are Christians. But they place a new stress on some expectations that
accompany a loss of old loyalties. Paramount is an emphasis on personal religious experience. For them, experience is the entry into faith. In Dudley's summary, they see their personal experience as necessary to precede believing, and believing has to occur before belonging.
The New Believers also look for a spiritual, even mystical faith, one that comes from being
touched by the supernatural reality they want to believe in. (Luecke 58)
“New Believers” to whom the Evangelical CGM caters are comparison shoppers. They know what they’re looking for in a god, and no church is worthy of their time unless it can deliver him. Post-modernism has met its match. Jesus is back, but now he comes in all your favorite flavors. Flattering sinful man’s innate desire for religiousness is automatic in the CGM’s theological heritage of Reformation-era Schwärmerei and early
American anticredalism. Dissatisfied with the Holy Spirit’s choice of means, they have “another spirit” (as Luther said at Marburg) who obeys their desires and reaches their goals. Luecke says, Effectiveness remains for me a jarring word when applied to worship. But I am learning how to
appreciate its significance as a reflection of a central emphasis in Evangelical style. A recurring
theme is that each person should have a profound, personal experience with God. With that as an objective for interacting with those gathered to worship, a natural question is whether most people could indeed recognize having had such an experience. If not, what could be done differently to help it happen among more of them?
Put more positively, looking for audience response can be a matter of looking for the Holy
Spirit's movement among those who are gathered. What do the worship leaders hope the Spirit will do? On a specific Sunday, are they looking for Him to heighten feelings of joy, or to stimulate more loving relationships, or to strengthen the resolve of those followers of Christ? It is not inappropriate
to look afterwards for evidence that God indeed blessed this time together by moving people with the Spirit in ways that had been prayerfully anticipated. (Luecke 106)
The Church Growth Movement pits theology against mission
Theology cannot be pitted against evangelism. That’s nonsense. That’s pitting the Word against the Word or God against himself. Using the term theology in its least technical sense (“study of God”) and knowing the Bible truly to be God’s Word, then the study of God is the study of Scripture. Knowing that “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ,” (Romans 10:17) and that “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples,” (John 8:31), we dare not think the study of biblical theology counterproductive to mission. It is essential. There is no word outside of God’s written Word that wins souls,
and no one whom God has chosen will be lost through his true Word. It won’t even scare off all the hypocrites!
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh
counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We
believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant
Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.) (John
This is the Word of God. What’s more, it’s data. Five thousand people were rejoicing to follow Jesus the day before (not counting women and children). The next day, Jesus did not water down a hard teaching, even though he well knew that his followers were having difficulty with it. What was wrong? Did he not “love them into the Kingdom” enough? Did he not supply their most obvious need? Was he not persuasive? Was he vague or unclear? Was Jesus ineffective?
In putting on “church growth eyes,”* the CGM has a tunnel vision that blinds it to basic truths of Scripture, denying their importance for world-wide mission. They eagerly point to the early church’s explosive growth as evidence of God’s will that his church grow, but they chop through the doctrine that Jesus taught the disciples.
A statement from Fuller Theological Seminary says bluntly: “[Theology] must be a servant of evangelism, which is a key aspect of [God’s] mission” (http://www.fuller.edu/news/html/mission_beyond_mission.asp). Of this and Fuller’s vague confession of faith Luecke says, “I can fully affirm both while also affirming by
* A ubiquitous term in CGM material that means, “the characteristic of Christians who have achieved an ability to see the possibilities for growth and to apply appropriate strategies to gain maximum results for Christ and His church.” Essentially, it’s an in-house term for all those who see things the way the leaders of the movement do.
subscription the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church” (Luecke 50). CGM regularly portrays the struggle of Christian churches to be loyal to Christ’s teaching as a disloyal waste of time and energy, detracting from mission. Hunter sidelines his training in Lutheran doctrine,
Unless God himself tells me otherwise, I will hold fast to my doctrinal heritage to the day I die. But I would much rather work with those who share my passion for the Great Commission than debate with those who share my doctrinal distinctives. (Hunter 1997: 181)
Slighting turns to mockery:
Everyone has an idea as to what constitutes high quality in a church. Pentecostal churches will
measure what percentage of their members have been baptized in the Holy Spirit and spoken in
tongues. Southern Baptists don’t agree. They measure Sunday School enrollment. Episcopalians
don’t agree. They measure how many take communion. Quakers don’t agree. They measure how many stand up for non-violence. Seventh-Day Adventists measure tithers. Lutherans drink beer and fight for doctrinal purity. (Wagner 1984: 25)
CGM looks outside the Bible for answers that their observations can’t provide
Slighting doctrine for the sake the CGM’s wrong view of Matthew 28 leaves them at a loss. Rushing to blame the stalling of the church on confessional church bodies and their worn out doctrine, CGM refuses to research issues that they fear may hinder their rush to fulfill the Great Commission. When data and investigation fail, they are left with two repeated options: natural man’s guesswork or direct revelations from God. Kurt Bruner interviews men and women who are not connected to a Christian church to find potentially valid reasons for their rejection of Christ. He is confused because some people he interviewed seemed to understand salvation
through Jesus perfectly yet they still did not believe. Bruner rejected passages in Scripture that give God all the credit for bringing us to faith because “God is a lover, not a rapist. He won’t force himself on anyone.” (Bruner 208)
When the Word doesn’t satisfy and imagination disgusts, CGM tries to gets answers directly from God apart from Scripture. An essential pathology of the CGM is its belief that those who are excited about expanding God’s mission will need specific, non-Scripture help from God in order to know how to get that done. CGM advocates try to discover God’s current way of conversion by studying the target culture. They look for God in the statistics of rapidly growing churches. They also ask God for new revelation to unite them in mission. Luecke wrote, “Lutheran Evangelism can be improved by finding new ways to receive the power from on high
and to share the joy that flows from it” (Luecke 45). Based on his model authors, Luecke did not speak carelessly. The CGM claims that God gives specific, inspired plans for our church’s future when we pray.
Prayer gives us the divine perspective on things, even though if frequently dimly and partially
perceived, yet sufficiently clear to set us on course with a consistent sense of direction. Prayer
clarifies vision and stimulates faith, saving us from many time and money-wasting exercises in
triviality and futility. Prayer helps to safeguard us from attempting ambitious schemes which are wrongly motivated. …Praying brings shape and generates faith in our planning, and planning brings
precision, urgency and sense of adventure into our praying. It ensures that our prayers grow arms and legs to facilitate their implementation. (Gibbs 40)
George Barna wrote in his book The Power of Vision,
Vision for ministry is a reflection of what God wants to accomplish through you to build His
Kingdom. Rather than rely upon the abilities of humans to concoct a view of, and to plan for, the
future, God conveys His view of that future to a leader. The future of the Church and of the people whom God has placed on this earth are simply too important to Him to allow people to lean on their own innate abilities and talents to develop half-baked schemes for reaching the world. While He allows us ample latitude and creativity to articulate, disseminate and implement the visions make no mistake about it: Visionary leaders receive their vision for ministry from God. (Barna 25-26)
Barna even wrote of the book itself:
Many people have stopped me during the past decade to thank me for writing this book. Often they recount stories of how the vision has changed their lives. But here’s my confession: I don’t feel that I wrote this book.
Now don't go jumping to conclusions before I finish: I don’t believe in the all-too-common
practice of ghostwriting; I pounded out every word that wound up in the final manuscript. But
writing this book was such a different and memorable experience for me because never before—or since—have I had a book that seemed to be written through me rather than by me. During that week of writing, it often seemed as if I were having something akin to an out-of-body experience, watching my fingers type in word after word and reading the text with admiration. Without wanting to overstate the case, let me simply say that this book is one of my proudest offerings to the Lord— largely because I know how deeply integrated He was in the writing process. When people give me compliments for the book, it is simply confirmation that the Lord wanted to get these thoughts into the minds and hearts of some of His people, and I was the available scribe of the moment. What a privilege that was and continues to be. (Barna 12)
During our research, the author of this report spoke to Pastor Dennis Episcopo (Appleton Alliance in Appleton, Wisconsin) about believing that God gives head pastors plans for their congregation’s future through visions. It was at a workshop that Episcopo conducted called, “Leading a Turn-Around Church.” This author was not the only WELS pastor in attendance who was taken aback by the claim that all his building projects had been done according to visions God had given him. We said, “How do you know a vision like this is from God?
On what basis can you say that to your people?” His answer was that you are the senior pastor. Couldn’t you be wrong, we asked him. What other assurances would you have when things aren’t going as you expected? He said that you could tell because you get a positive response from your leaders since “God is a God of order.”
How strange! Episcopo had told us that opposition to his visions had caused his leadership council to shrink from 20 to 4 as he was “casting it.” Later he boasted that if your vision is “of God, if it’s in your gut, you’re going to be talking about it all the time. Vision is something that you’re spilling out all the time. And you’re excited about it….And, really, if it’s of God, the people are going to start grabbing onto it, especially if you’re passionate about it.” These are grandiose and unscriptural criteria for determining the will of God.
“Visions” have swamped CGM in a turbid sea of emotionalism and Pentecostalism. The so-called “Third Wave” of the CGM (a charismatic movement within the movement) began sweeping over the campus of Fuller
Theological Seminary in the 1980’s and is now integral to CGM. Wagner wrote of the charismatic movement:
For many years I thought that such activity had terminated with the apostolic age and that today we were limited to fulfilling the cultural mandate through natural means. More recently, however, I have done a 180-degree turn. Abundant biblical and experiential evidence has now thoroughly convinced me that Jesus truly is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I now take literally His words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father” (John 14:12). The Pentecostals and the charismatics have known this for some time, but many of us who have not personally identified with either of those movements are now beginning to understand something of what they are talking about. Fuller Seminary is pioneering some academic activity on this level with a course begun by Jon Wimber in 1982 entitled “MC510 Signs, Wonders and Church Growth.” (Wagner 1984:30-31)
Wagner’s most recent work, Dominion!: How Kingdom Action Can Change the World plunges into the abyss of deceptive spirits and End Time megalomania. (Our sainted John Schaller exposed this uniquely American theological pride as early as 1915!) The table of contents is unusually expansive:
1. A New Wine: The Second Apostolic Age The New Apostolic Reformation, with it roots going
back to 1900, is today’s new wineskin. The Second Apostolic Age began in 2001, and today’s
apostles are the church leaders who most hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. They are now hearing the clear mandate of God for social transformation, the theme of this book.
9. A New Influence: Money Answers Everything! Solomon says, “Money answers everything”
(Ecclesiastes 10:19). We have not taken such wisdom seriously enough. Three things, more than
anything else, have changed society throughout history: violence, knowledge and wealth—and the greatest of these is wealth. Our churches have been under the spell of a spirit of poverty since the monastic movement began, and this spirit must be broken in order for wealth to flow. Our most reputable prophets have prophesied a great transfer of wealth from the unrighteous to the Kingdom of God. Our ministries need to move from donor-based financing to revenue-based financing, and wealth must be distributed skillfully through sophisticated philanthropy. God gives His people the power to get wealth (see Deuteronomy 8:18). (Wagner 2008:5, 9)
The Church Growth Movement wrongly pits effectiveness against faithfulness
The CGM’s mockery of “mere” faithfulness and its constant search for ever more effective means of conversion shows its central error of rejecting Scripture in favor of human observation. Hunter writes:
When church workers approach their task as defenders of the truth without adding the concept of sharing the truth, they abdicate responsibility of leadership in two areas. First, they fail to cast (communicate) vision. As the proverb says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”
Casting vision is an important role of leadership. In Acts 2, the Scripture says that in the last
days, God will raise up the young and the old who will dream dreams and see visions. When the
church operates from an ecclesiology that lacks the outward emphasis of being a confessing church (a truly evangelical community), the leadership may concentrate on preaching the Gospel in its purity and administering the Sacraments, but this often takes the form of a maintenance ministry. (Hunter 1997: 220)
No one disputes that a church that does not share the gospel with outsiders is not being faithful. The question of effectiveness, however, raises a very different issue.
God has not placed His people into the world to be ineffective. He is infinitely interested in results so much so that He would send His own Son into the world to die on a cross. Christians stand before God as people who are commanded to be good and faithful stewards. Christians are held accountable. Their new relationship with Christ gives them the desire to be effective in mission and ministry. Effectiveness has to be measured. Record keeping, graphing, and measurement are ways to discover whether or not the church is reaching its goals. It is important to “visualize the facts.” Statistics are tools that can be used to God's glory. (Hunter 1994: 163)
Our journey through CGM writings made it clear that, to CGM, effective means, “It turns people without God into mature followers of Christ.” Effective draws on CGM’s bad exegesis of Matthew 28 and the unscriptural conceit that, by “record keeping, graphing, and measuring,” we can figure out what particular method God has currently decided to use to bring people into the church. By carefully monitoring the continued success of those methods, we will know, the claim goes, when to “ride the wave” and when to jump off lest we waste God-given resources. When data fails as new revelation, supposedly a steady stream of visions directly from God will tell us—if, as truly godly leaders, we are open to the Spirit’s leanings. “Effective leaders must be
visionaries” (Barna 55).
It is your committee’s prayer that you see all the gaping unbiblical holes in this “theology of growth.” It is our prayer that you see an unsteady house built on the shifting sand of human observation, not on the solid rock of God’s Word, even though by “proof texting” and eisegesis twisted Scripture litters the landscape of CGM. At the same time, you may examine your conscience regarding your own congregation and ministry and wonder if you really shouldn’t be more effective. Words like these feel aimed right at you:
Whenever the church is growing, it is by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. It is God who has always taken the initiative to bring sinful humans to repentance and faith. However, sometimes people frustrate God’s plan. The church gets sidetracked. God’s people get self-centered. The spiritual dynamic is secularized. The Word becomes a low priority. Something becomes central --besides Christ. The church, a living organism, becomes an organization -an institution. Christians become spectators. Preaching becomes irrelevant. The Lord’s Supper is viewed as a ritual. Evangelism is the pastor’s job. Spiritual growth is only for children. In summary, God’s Spirit is frustrated. Church growth does not seek to help the Holy Spirit -it seeks to help people clear away the barriers for effective growth. (Hunter 1994: 53)
It is also our prayer that you don’t allow things that legitimately cause you to seek the Lord’s mercy in repentance to blind you to the hypocrisy of CGM false teachers calumniating you with “The Word becomes a low priority. Something becomes central --besides Christ.” The CGM cannot judge your effectiveness because they don’t understand conversion nor how to measure it. The CGM cannot judge your effectiveness because they reject the power that makes people disciples of Christ.
Two well-known participles accompany that command which the CGM thoughtlessly abuses over and over again, proving the CGM faithless toward the Lord’s entire injunction. The CGM does not teach people
everything that the Lord has commanded us. They subordinate Christ’s teaching to their false, institutionalized view of evangelism. At baptism, they gape, baffled.
God’s grace to infants especially makes us re-examine faith and the means of grace. Baptismal regeneration is like hot water poured on tiny fissures in ice. Concealed fracture lines in doctrine suddenly cleave into great chasms, revealing the worthlessness of their core theology.
Francis Pieper says, “Finally it behooves all of us to make a confession about infants.”
If we look at the matter without God’s Word, infant faith appears improbable to us. Our
psychological knowledge fails us here. We, too, are apt to pity the poor children because of their
rudimentary intelligence, and regard them as capable neither of faith, nor of the kingdom of heaven, nor of Baptism. The disciples had similar thoughts. When the children were brought to Jesus that He might touch them, the disciples rebuked, scolded, those who brought them. The disciples also thought: Cui bono? The entire association of the children with Christ could amount to nothing but make believe. But the Lord checks these thoughts of His disciples. “He was much displeased, and said unto them, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not; for of such is the Kingdom of God.’” At the same time Christ instructs His disciples and all of us what this reason, which we grownups developed in the course of years, actually contributes toward entrance into the Kingdom of God. He says: “Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” The Lord therefore reverses the judgment of the disciples. The disciples hold that children are not the fitting subjectum quod for Christ’s blessing, but Christ informs them that adults will have to become like the children if they would participate in the kingdom of heaven. Thus also we shall have to desist from our own calculations and learn how to think correctly, by faith in the words of Christ, about the faith and salvation of infants. (Pieper 287)
McGavran, on the other hand, states:
[Measurement] is essential to understanding church growth. The church is made up of countable
people and there is nothing particularly spiritual in not counting them. Men use the numerical
approach in all worthwhile human endeavors. Industry, commerce, finance, research, government, invention, and a thousand other lines of enterprise derive great profit and much of their stability in development from continual measurement. Without it they would feel helpless and blindfolded. (McGavran 1980: 93)
I believe McGavran is absolutely correct. Without measurement, we feel helpless and blindfolded. Without measurement, we have no feeling of control. But in baptism, God is the one who puts the blindfold on us. Does he do so to trick us? Are we helpless when he puts us in a cleft in the rock and shields our eyes from the full vision of his glory?
And what of the preaching of men? What of the imperfect witness of our halting love? Can we measure the effectiveness of preaching? Can we discount the divine call to faith as ineffective because it is uttered through a sinful mouth? Recall Bruner the Arminian, who did not want to believe in the power of God’s call to bring the unwilling to faith. He wanted to believe that we have free choice in our own conversion, despite Scripture’s clear warning that we are dead to God by nature and always resist his Word. Not only did the Bible challenge his taking credit for his own spiritual resurrection; so did his practical investigation! Yet he refused the truth.
Why is it that, as the apostle John writes, “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it”?
I posed that question to a number of long-term Christians, asking what they consider the most
common reasons for unbelief. Many cited misunderstanding, ignorance, or confusion about the
content and meaning of the gospel. Certainly, many still need to hear the good news. But that does not explain why others reject it. Some, like Ken in chapter seven, could explain Christianity to me better than many long-term believers. They clearly get it. They just don’t buy it.
The most commonly listed culprit, surprisingly, was the church itself. Despite a diverse
representation of many denominations, most pinned the blame for others rejecting Christ on us
Christians. We simply represent him poorly. The trouble with this scapegoat, as I see it, is that it fails to consider a glaringly obvious reality: millions of people, myself included, have embraced
Christianity through the church despite its warts and failures. Looking past offensive remarks, fallen leaders, hypocritical members, and periodic scandals, we still embrace the truth. If poor
representation caused unbelief, there would be no believers at all. The church would have died in the first century due to Peter’s hot temper or Paul’s bad breath. (Bruner 204)
We do not quote Bruner to encourage you to read his book. Quite the opposite. Bruner could not reach solid ground. Ultimately he trusted in reason and observation for gaining insight into his nagging questions. Leave CGM false prophets, brothers. Fear them not! They are blind guides. Stumbling in the light, they shut their eyes.
Stumbling in the darkness, they claim to see the way.
Could we not learn something from those outside our fellowship that we might not learn within it? Are there not Christians of other confessions? Are there none who might offer us valid words of encouragement? They might. At the same time we must say that you will certainly learn nothing from them that Scripture would not have taught you more clearly. To the law and to the testimony, my brothers! “If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8:20). Luther reminds us:
A curse on a love that is observed at the expense of the doctrine of faith, to which everything must yield—love, an apostle, an angel from heaven, etc.! Therefore when they minimize this issue in such a dishonest way, they give ample evidence of how highly they regard the majesty of the Word. If they believed that it is the Word of God, they would not play around with it this way. No, they would treat it with the utmost respect; they would put their faith in it without any disputing or doubting; and they would know that one Word of God is all and that all are one, that one doctrine is all doctrines and all are one, so that when one is lost all are eventually lost, because they belong together and are held together by a common bond. (Luther 1964: 27)
The desk in my office stands against a wall that is falling apart. You can’t tell that from where I sit, but I know that just outside this office, the bricks of this wall are crumbling and falling into the flower bed below. I saw the culprit right away when we moved in two years ago. It was some sort of climbing flower. As it had grown up the wall, its tendrils had found a foothold in the cracks of the brick.
Later I found out how unusual this was. Ivy plants, like the kind that you see on some university campuses, have specialized roots that look like little suction cups. It is these “suction cups” that are responsible for the damage often done to the mortar in those walls. On this wall outside my office, however, we weren’t dealing
with ivy. There were no little suction cups. There were only the curly tendrils of this climbing flower, normally unable to burrow into brick or mortar. This plant’s tendrils are generally too weak to penetrate anything at all.
So how are they taking my wall apart? The wall is weak. Nobody remembers just how it happened, since the house is over 100 years old. At some time someone covered that wall with a weak, crumbly, sandstone brick suited only for decoration or fill-in jobs, not for whole walls. The tendrils could only grab hold and do damage because the bricks already had cracks in them. They were already weak. The tendrils would be useless against the wall if it offered no place to grab hold and destroy.
As we said flatly in our introduction, brothers, it is not our committee’s role in the synod to study cracks in the wall. Our mandate was to study the tendrils so that we may defend against them. Where it was fitting for us to act as individuals within the framework freely adopted as an expression of brotherly love and order, we have done so—and are continuing to do so. This is about the tendrils, those piercing “feelers” of false doctrine, looking for a foothold. Truth is a quality material that is not threatened by the presence of such tendrils. Lies that naturally lurk in our sinful hearts provide an opening for the tendrils of false doctrine.
The Church Growth Movement reaches out to the WELS
When you see CGM errors in vast array, you wonder why anyone would find CGM material attractive at all. We all know the weariness of fighting the good fight day in and day out in a wicked world. Psalm 73 is especially precious because we know that God is surely good to his chosen people (verse 1), yet temptations bring us to danger as we see the success of the wicked and envy their prosperity, thinking, “They have no
struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong” (2-4).
Compared to the open wickedness of those who appeal to the obvious vices of the sinful nature, we feel more comfort with CGM advocates and their public posturing for conservative approaches to God’s Word. There are prominent leaders in the CGM from many of the more “conservative” church bodies, including the Lutherans! We’ve mentioned Hunter’s Lutheran background before, and he often compares CGM theology and practice positively to Lutheranism:
Whereas Martin Luther and the reformers of the 16th century brought about a reformation of
theology, many people today believe that the Church Growth Movement is bringing about a
reformation in practice. If this is correct, the church today is in the midst of another reformation.
The Church Growth Movement doesn't reform the theology of the Reformation. It is based on it.
Church growth puts into practice the great truths of Scripture which were emphasized by the
reformers. (Hunter 1994: 26)
Luecke, another former Lutheran who threw in his lot with the CGM, sounds pretty good when he says, “Lutherans who are fully determined to remain Bible-based in their proclamation have to assess other churches according to whether they share that intent.” Those are my concerns exactly, we might think, but then Luecke claims of the Evangelicals of the CGM, “It is apparent that Evangelicals do” (Luecke 68). Ah, but these are the
comments of Missouri Synod Lutherans. Surely those staunch, WELS Lutherans won’t indulge this heterodox movement, right?
Men like Donald McGavran, Peter Beyerhaus, C. Peter Wagner, Arthur Glasser and others have not hesitated to speak out strongly against the liberal views within modern Protestantism. In an era when many churches have become thoroughly shot through with humanistic propaganda and anti-super naturalistic philosophy, it is refreshing to know that there are still those who want to take the Bible seriously. Their use of terminology such as sin, repentance, conversion and salvation wants to be understood in a scriptural sense. To them mission work is a life-and-death matter. They urgently want to extend every effort toward making the most efficient use of time, talent and money to carry out what they earnestly believe to be the greatest task in the world. They regard the world as potentially ripe for the gospel and are always on the lookout for new “strategies” to gather in the harvest. (Wendland 5)
Truth be told, the CGM has always had a fiery appearance of enthusiasm for truth that looks very admirable from a distance. Many a Lutheran, dubious about the CGM, garners an initial illusion of CGM’s deepest respect for each and every denomination’s most urgent concerns:
The basic positions of church growth are profoundly biblical and theological: but are not a complete theology. Complete YOUR theology by building these basic growth concepts as to the urgency and authority of evangelism in it. As you set forth CG theory and theology for your congregations and your denomination use your own creedal statements, your own system. (McGavran 1980: 7)
CGM’s image improves by its uncanny ability to describe situations in our own church body as though they themselves were insiders. They know us so well!
Church Growth advocates believe that defending the truth is not the primary purpose of the church. Sharing the truth is the primary purpose. Defending the truth is an important means to that end. Communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ is what it means to be a confessing church. One important means to that end is to defend the truth, which is what it means to be a confessional church. Church Growth advocates are concerned with the purity of the Gospel and, from the Lutheran perspective, the means of grace, but these are not an end in themselves. They are a means to a greater end, sharing the Gospel. This is what it means, first and foremost, to be an evangelical church.
…The means and the end sometimes get turned around. The confessing group suddenly
becomes a confessional group. Defending the truth and maintaining the belief system take priority over sharing the truth. (Hunter 1997: 185-188)
What could be wrong with holding to our own doctrine while adding a little CGM muscle and insight to the implementation of our mission? Aren’t all those lost souls out there worth it? At times CGM errors are so obvious that it almost seems we could easily pull off “Lutheranizing” the techniques of the CGM while eschewing its theology. But this is much more difficult than it sounds.
First there is the especially deceptive pseudo-Biblicism intrinsic to McGavran and Arn’s* denominational allegiance. As long as you don’t focus on any doctrine, the way that a Restorationist speaks feels very much like home to a conservative Lutheran. They are very blunt, very literal and vehement defenders of biblical inspiration
* Another pioneer in the CGM in America.
who quote the Scriptures regularly. They are also extreme legalists who are boldly non-confessional and energetically unionistic. The wooly coat is wolfishly convincing, especially compared to the size of the teeth on the beast inside (cf. the appended “Brief on Campbell-Stone Restorationism”).
Second, the particular form of legalism in the CGM today should be familiar to us as one that has sunk its teeth into the Lutheran church before—a wound from which our recovery is agonizing and slow. Luecke exemplifies how deep that wound really goes. Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance casts Pietism as a positive aspect of our confessional heritage giving us common ground with the Evangelicals.
Pietism has repeatedly shown its worthiness as a wellspring for new church life. It is a style that has a rightful place in Lutheran theology and history. Today it is practiced most effectively by many Evangelical churches. Lutheran churches concerned about outreach have good cause to go, look, and assess. Perhaps they may find something from their own roots that they can readapt. (Luecke 92)
Third, CGM does everything they do with top-flight production values by whatever means necessary. It attracts smart people who like to figure things out. It therefore produces smart-sounding, good-looking material.
Fourth, CGM is effective. That may seem odd for us to say, but it is undeniable—externally. Take any outward characteristic of a disciple of Christ as CGM defines it, and you will, given enough time and effort, develop a method that successfully produces that characteristic in a large number of people every time you do it. You don’t even need the Bible to do it. A recent New York Times bestseller says,
If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes: but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desire – with how we want to view ourselves – than with reality. (Ariely 243).
To put it very bluntly, manipulation works. Playing to people’s feelings gets them to do what you want. If you know how, you can get people to act as you desire. A research cult need not be right to get results. Once again: theology does not come from data. Pulled strings do not make the dead person alive.
A solid wall of truth
The way to prevent tendrils from finding a foothold is to present them with a hard, flat, solid surface. If this wall outside my office consisted of good brick and strong mortar, the tendrils would reach out in vain. There would be no foothold, no way for them to damage the wall. They would reach and wrap, wrap and reach, but eventually the plant would simply fall to the ground, leaving the wall unharmed.
There is no reason for our synod to present a foothold to the ways or teachings of the CGM. If the Lord truly is converting many souls through the Word that is among them, it certainly isn’t because of their errors. It certainly isn’t because they cater to the people’s religious whims. It also isn’t because they analyze culture or use the latest research or know more preaching styles than we do. If some come to faith through the ministry of
CGM advocates, it is because the Lord, all on his own, despite obstacles “und kein Dank dazu haben!”* without the need of any special aids, graciously worked through his prevailing Word. Errors did not help him do it, nor does anyone’s conversion excuse error before the judgment seat of God Almighty.
If you see tendrils from the CGM reaching into our synod or into your ministry and you fear the dangers, then your course of action needs to be the same as when you feel no danger at all: Flee to the Word as your only refuge. Do not fear that the “experts” in church growth have something to teach you that is essential to your congregation’s health.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of
eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on them. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies)
The Lord knows those who are his. He will not lose a single one. Nobody is going to come up with a new method that will change the number of people in heaven or the number of people in hell when the Last Day comes. And if in the meantime I do those things that God has called me to do, those things that he calls “faithful,” then I will have done the most effective things I can possibly do. I cannot set goals for conversions or for levels of maturity because these are not things I can personally control nor can I decisively measure them.
We should not and cannot pass judgment on the Holy Spirit’s presence, operations, and gifts merely on the basis of our feeling, how and when we perceive it in our hearts. On the contrary, because the Holy Spirit’s activity often is hidden, and happens under cover of great weakness, we should be certain, because of and on the basis of his promise, that the Word which is heard and preached is an office and work of the Holy Spirit, whereby he assuredly is potent and active in our hearts (II Cor. 2:14ff.). (FC II.56, Tappert, 532).
This is not a time—nor is it ever the time—to wonder if we have been too focused on knowing the truth that we have failed to share it. Knowing the truth more will not cause you to share it less. Faithfulness (not effectiveness) does mean carrying out the Lord’s command to make disciples of all nations. At the same time, however, if we want to know what that means and truly judge whether or not we have done it, then these heretics who do not understand it themselves are not going to be any help. This is a time to dig deeper into the Word, to understand it better. It is a time to be clearer on just what the Bible does say, as our synod has begun to do by restudying the commission passages together.
Given that this essay mentions the discovery of many examples of poor exegesis on both sides of the CGM debate, we would also venture to make the following suggestions for further study, since we have seen these passages misused so often and by so many:
1 Corinthians 9:22 (pa.t.. does not mean “by all possible means” in an instrumental sense.
Rather, it means “certainly, surely, no doubt”).
* From Luther’s A Mighty Fortress: “nor any thanks have for it.”
1 Chronicles 12:32 (kept in the context of this chapter and the history at large, “understanding the times and knowing what to do more naturally refers to their faith in the Word of God sent through Samuel that David was the rightful heir to Israel’s throne)
Joel 2:28-32 (neither the context in Joel nor the context of Acts 2 supports the notion that God has
promised to reveal his will to head pastors regarding things he wants their congregations to do)
Proverbs 29:18 (the parallelism in this passage by itself is enough to make you wonder why CGM
authors use this verse to refer to the visions of leaders rather than to biblical prophecy)
2 Peter 1:8 (the NIV here speaks of people being ineffective where the Greek says lazy or useless—
some use this to indicate that showing more love will allow you to convert more people)
Isaiah 43:18-19 (the CGM uses this Messianic prophecy for their own purposes by saying that it is
“epochal,” that is, it refers to the fact that God is always doing new things we need to perceive)
It’s worth noting as this paper concludes that throughout the four years that the author served as chairman of this committee, he had as many conversations as possible with people around the synod, looking for opportunities to let people speak about their understanding of the various issues that the CGM confuses through their enthusiastic false teachings. Synodical message boards seemed a good place to start because the Internet reaches across the entire synod and we were hoping for a wide range of experiences. We were surprised at how quickly informal messaging contact became private email contact and then telephone contact. Questions came
quickly because pastor, teacher and layperson alike all seemed to be thinking about these issues—and reading a lot of the books that became our study material as a committee.
The most threatening of all lies is the one that reaches out with a kernel of truth. No doubt we deserve to be called lazy, disorganized and cold toward this extraordinary role God has given us on the front lines of salvation. If I would ever dare to use my study of the Word as an excuse not to share that Word, then the condemnations are well deserved. But let us not in sorrow over our failures turn to lies for consolation. Turn to the One who is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Only in the Word of Absolution, only in the Feast of Forgiveness, only in the Baptism that now saves you also are we truly delivered.
Only in the true gospel of forgiveness can a wretched man like I am receive a true heart for mission. LORD, grant it to us all for Jesus’ sake.
O blessed saints, now take your rest; For now you live at home with God;
A thousand times you will be blessed You toiled and sowed the Word abroad.
For keeping faith Rejoice and bring
Firm unto death Your fruits and sing
And scorning worldly trust. Before the throne of God.
The myriad angels raise the song;
O saints, sing with that happy throng!
Lift up one voice;
Let heav’n rejoice
In our Redeemer’s song.
The following is almost exclusively a list of works cited and not of all those that were assigned to the committee. The author of the final essay felt strongly that we do not need yet another reading list of CGM works.
American Society for Church Growth home page, http://www.ascg.org/.
Ariely, D. 2008. Predictably Irrational. Harper Collins: New York
Barna, G. 2003. Power of Vision. Regal: Ventura
Bruner, K. 2005. I Still Believe. Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Fredrich, J. 2007. Matthew 28:19 and the Mission of the WELS. WELS: Milwaukee
Fuller Theological Seminary. 2008. Mission Beyond the Mission. Fuller Theological Seminary: Pasadena
Garrison, W. & A. DeGroot. 1954. Disciples of Christ. Christian Board of Publication: Saint Louis
Gibbs, E. 1982. I Believe in Church Growth. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids
George, C. 1992. Prepare Your Church for the Future. Revell: Grand Rapids
Hawkins, G. & C. Parkinson (eds). 2007. Reveal – Where Are You? Willow Creek: South Barrington
Hoenecke, A. 2003. (tr J. Langebartels). Evangelical Lutheran Dogmatics III. Northwestern: Milwaukee
Hunter, K. 1994. Foundations For Church Growth. Church Growth Center: Corunna
Hunter, K. 1997. Confessions of a Church Growth Enthusiast. Church Growth Center: Corunna
Irenaeus. 1994. (ed A. Roberts & J. Donaldson). Against Heresies. Hendrickson: Peabody
Koester, R. 1997. Law and Gospel. Northwestern: Milwaukee
Luecke, D. 1988. Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance. Concordia: Saint Louis
Luther, M. 1964. (ed J. Pelikan, H. Oswald & H. Lehmann) Lectures on Galatians, 1535/1519. [LW 27]
Concordia: Saint Louis
McGavran, D. 1955. Bridges of God. Friendship: New York
McGavran, D. 1980. Understanding Church Growth. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids
McGavran, D. & W. Arn. 1977. Ten Steps for Church Growth. Harper and Row: San Francisco
Michigan District, WELS. 2003. Convention Proceedings. Saginaw
Pieper, F. 1953. (tr T. Engelder & W. Albrecht). Christian Dogmatics III. Concordia: Saint Louis
Rainer, T. 2003. Unchurched Next Door. Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Schaller, J. 1916, (tr. J. Weaver-Hudson). Calvinist Streak in the American People. WLS Essays: Mequon
Strobel, L. 1993. Inside the Mind of Unchurched Harry and Mary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Wagner, C. 1984. Leading Your Church to Growth. Regal: Ventura
Wagner, C. 1987. Strategies for Church Growth. Regal: Ventura
Wagner, C. 2005. Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow. Regal: Ventura
Warren, R. 1995. Purpose Driven Church. Zondervan: Grand Rapids
Wendland, E. 1981?. Evaluation of Current Missiology. WLS Essays: Mequon
Wright, T. 1994. Community of Joy. Abingdon: Nashville
Scriptural quotation from the New International Version.
|It only got worse with Seifert (who pretended to hate CG) and Mark Schroeder as SP - the Great Reformer. Ha.|