Recently, I've had several conversations with friends who teach church growth principles. Several of them have asked me some version of the question in the title of this article.
“Why is there so much more pushback against church growth principles lately?”
I’m noticing it, too.
More church leaders are asking hard questions about the church growth movement. And this time it's not just the usual cynics, it's leaders who previously would have – or did – embrace those principles with open arms.
This is not because there’s something inherently wrong with the church growth movement, but because it’s been around long enough to see, not just the short-term successes, but the long-term challenges as well.
Acknowledging Real-World Problems
Every set of principles should be able to stand up to scrutiny, so these new questions should not be seen as a problem, but as an opportunity to learn more about such an important aspect of church life and leadership.
For several decades now, the burgeoning field of church growth has relied on learning new ideas, testing them in real-world situations, then promoting the success stories.
But as church growth principles come to the half-century mark, they’ve been around long enough to see a sizable number of stories on the other side of the ledger, too – churches for whom church growth principles not only didn’t work, but seemed to create more problems than they solved.
This shouldn’t surprise or upset us.
After all, facts are our friends. And if those facts are now exposing some previously unseen problems, we need to explore them with eyes wide open. Or we’ll never be able to fix them.
Here’s why more pastors are questioning church growth principles.
- It’s not because we don’t want churches to grow. We do.
- It’s not because we’re against big churches. We’re not.
- It’s not because we think small churches are better than big churches. We don’t.
- It’s not because we think church growth principles have nothing to offer. They do.
It’s because every good idea has unintended consequences. And the art and science of church growth is no exception to that.
One of those unintended consequences is that in too many situations, numerical growth has become the goal rather than the means to a greater end.
While church growth principles and the movement surrounding them have brought us a lot of good results (a renewed emphasis on outreach, for instance) there’s enough evidence now to help us see some of those unintended consequences and the problems they create.
- Whenever church health is seen as a way to get our church numbers up, we have a problem.
- Whenever evangelism is seen as a way to get more butts in the seats, we have a problem.
- Whenever discipleship is seen as a way to break growth barriers, we have a problem.
As I wrote in a recent article, church health, evangelism and discipleship need to be done out of simple faithfulness to God and his Word. When we need the added incentive of numerical increase to do what the Bible calls us to do, something’s gone wrong.
Thankfully, these problems are neither overwhelming nor irreversible.
We need to capitalize on the positives of the church growth movement without turning a blind eye to the problems – or denouncing reasonable critics for exposing those issues.
We need to hear stories on the negative side of the ledger, not just on the positive side.
We need to assess the success of church growth principles by typical results, not just by a small percentage of extreme outlier success stories – or failures.
The Next Generation of Church Growth
The church growth movement is moving from its early years to middle age. We’re coming to the end of its second generation and starting its third.
The giddiness of the early years has worn off. Hopefully the knee-jerk denunciations from reactionary naysayers will die down, too.
Everyone needs to take a hard, fair and open-eyed look at what we’ve learned, what we have yet to learn, mistakes we’ve made and blessings we can capitalize on.
The mission is too important for us to do anything less.
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