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Church Growth and Pastoral Stress


What has church growth thinking and practice got to do with the clergy’s ‘not being a happy lot’? I believe there are at least four ‘presenting problems’:

(1) ‘Numerolatry’

I have yet to meet the healthy pastor who is not gratified by an increase in his or her congregation, nor disappointed by its decrease. (10) McGavran’s Understanding Church Growth is a passionate defence of the idea that numerical growth is the only really valid criterion of church growth. (11) He makes the a priori claim that all other areas of church life – evangelism, ministry, cultural adaptation, stewardship, etc. – are tied in an absolute way to the one overriding factor of numerical increase. The essence of church growth thinking is to research the factors which help or inhibit such increase. So whether we like it or not, ‘church growth’ connotes numbers, quantity. Is this idea biblical? Church growth protagonists affirm that the Bible is ‘full of numbers. It’s full of counts. Twelve apostles, 70 disciples, 5000 fed, 500 meeting after the resurrection, and so on’. David Pawson goes on to say: ‘The Book of Acts is particularly striking here. Somebody on the day of Pentecost was so full of the Spirit that they counted heads. And do you notice the progression in the Book of Acts? At the beginning they count individuals. At the end they’re counting in churches. At the beginning they’re counting men, women and everybody. But pretty soon they found that counting the men only was the quickest way. There is an intense interest in growth.’ (12) Similarly, Orlando Costas notes that throughout the New Testament there are numerous references to growth. (13) ‘The idea of growth is therefore basic to the experience and missional expectancy of the first Christians and to the biblical theology of mission.’ (14) David Pawson says every major denomination in his country (Britain) has been reporting a decline for sixty years… and we have not only accepted the decline, but we have begun to justify it, psychologically, theol- ogically, ecclesiologically. We have developed the kind of remnant theology which can even lead to a certain satisfaction, psychologically, in being a despised minority. (15) Certainly, numerical growth may not mean that the church is really growing: it may, in the words of Juan Carlos Ortiz, be simply getting fat. Orlando Costas has given us, in my view, a devastating illustration of this in his analysis of the growth of Chilean Pentecostalism, 1910-1975. (16) An accretion of individuals into the ‘church’, as history has witnessed in some of its mass movements, may indeed be ‘Christendom in the making, and not Christianity breaking through’. (17) Are quantity and quality antithetical? Is ‘getting the numbers’ always to be thought to militate against ‘better relationships?’ Certainly, some evangelists, in their zeal for ‘numbers’, have neglected qualitative follow-through with those who have made ‘decisions for Christ’. I believe we need three cautions here. The first has been expressed by Erich Fromm: Our age has found a substitute for God – the impersonal calculation. This new god has turned into an idol to whom all may be sacrificed. A new concept of the sacred and unquestionable is arising: that of calculability, probability, factuality. (18) The second must be an affirmation that numerical growth is not everything; it is not the only way to measure vit- ality, although it may be one way. Numerical increase ord- inarily and ideally, ought to be an index of quality. Cert- ainly, in the Acts of the Apostles, numerical increase was an occasion for celebration rather than (as unfortunately exists in some Christian circles today), an occasion for cynicism. (19) Thirdly, and, I believe we must understand the psychology of either an obsession with, or depreciation of, ‘numbers’. Such attitudes either cater to our egos, or, conversely, we lose sight of the fact that ‘numbers are real persons, for each of whom Christ died’. The danger of the first attitude is that of ‘triumphalism’, of the second, that expressed in the unbiblical dictum, ‘Proselytizing is a non-Christian activity’. (20) Further, as I try to point out elsewhere in this book, any notion which produces ‘winners and losers’ has to be examined very carefully indeed. Perhaps ‘numerical growth’ is like the motor car: it’s alright in principle, but in the wrong hands…!

(2) Selectivity and the Homogeneous Unit Principle

Here we are linking two related church growth princ- iples, one a corollary of the other. The principle of selectivity simply says the church should concentrate on the responsive elements without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers. (21) A homogeneous unit is simply a group of people who consider each other to be ‘our kind of people.’ (22) Win Arn summarizes the research: ‘Churches grow, and grow best, in their own homogeneous unit… [and, in addition] people want their pastor to be ‘like’ them. Not too far above or below, not too far ahead or behind.’ (23) The practical outworking of these principles has very important theological, ethical, and strategic implications for pastors and missionaries. Jurgen Moltmann has written: The church of the crucified Christ cannot consist of an assembly of like persons who mutually affirm each other, but must be constituted of unlike persons… For the crucified Christ, the principle of fellowship is fellowship with those who are different, and solidarity with those who have become alien and have been made different. Its power is not friendship, the love for what is similar and beautiful (‘philia’), but creative love for what is different, alien and ugly (‘agape’). (24)

So the homogeneous unit principle is a form of ecclesiastical apartheid. Usually church growth practitioners have rationalized their adherence to this principle by saying that a monocultural approach is necessary in evangelism, whereas more mature believers can be encouraged in their koinonia to widen the circle. But this ignores two important issues. The first, and most basic, is that minority groups in all societies may offer, from their rich cultural and spiritual traditions, something of God’s truth hidden from the dominant group. But, more seriously, if the church-on-earth is supposed to exemplify in its life the unity-in-diversity ideals of the New Testament vision for the church, how can such selectivity be countenanced? Church-members ought to be encouraged from the outset to incorporate ‘kingdom values’ authentically in their individual and corporate living. In response to these and other considerations, McGavran says, in effect, ‘show me’. There’s some sort of ‘homogen- eous glue’ in every growing congregation (even if it’s a ‘charismatic’ or ‘prophetic’ glue in culturally heterogeneous churches such as that at Antioch, Acts 13:1-3). He says the ability to transcend racial and ethnic barriers is a fruit of the Spirit reserved for those who have already made consider- able progress in the Christian way. It is not a virtue that can be expected of neophytes. I believe a counter-argument can be made on other than pragmatic grounds (what strategy will win the most with the least effort and dollars?) to those who have trouble with this principle. And it’s simply that the whole notion of ‘progressive revelation’ implies an adaptation of truth to the ability of the recipients to assimilate it. God has been very selective in his covenantal dealings with the human race, and refuses to give rational reasons for this approach. Jacob yes, Esau no, and that’s that. God ministers his grace to selected people, and sometimes, because of their hard- heartedness, stops striving with them, and even ‘gives them up’. Christ himself operated selectively, he came not to call the (self-)righteous, but sinners to repentance. The unproductive fig-tree is cut down. Pearls should not be given to swine. These messages are loud and clear: select- ivity is a function of responsiveness. Perhaps there’s a strategic dimension here: first, the responsive come, then later, and through them, the less responsive. First the multitudes, then a large number of priests (Acts 6:7). McGavran indicates that this is the right approach today too. The best way to win the resistant is to win the responsive first. Bishop Pickett reports that the only place in India in which any significant number of high-caste Indians have been won is Andhra Province, where multitudes of outcasts were won first. Paul’s missionary approach is similarly ‘selective’. He stays in Corinth, for the Lord has many people in that city (Acts 18:8-11). He must tarry at Ephesus, because a great door for effective work has opened for him (1 Corinthians 16:8-9). And, so far as the homogeneity principle is conc- erned, he is quite clear: to the Jew he becomes like a Jew, to win the Jews, and so on (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). I would personally endorse the ‘homogeneous evangelism/ heterogeneous koinonia’ idea. However, there is a very great danger in a church’s becoming like a country club if its people’s values are not prophetically challenged. There is a constant – and sometimes not-so-subtle pressure on preachers to selectively filter their message to reinforce the racism, sexism, or materialism of one particular group of people. The church should, by its preaching and example, be challeng- ing the prevailing non-Christian elements of its surrounding culture. Its business is ‘culture tranformation’ rather than ‘culture affirmation’. One further word: strategy-wise, I agree with James Engel that perhaps the selectivity issue in evangelism is not ‘either/or’, so much as selecting different strategies according to the ripeness of the fields. To extend the agricultural analogy further, we need to ‘analyse soils’ before we sow. Perhaps various pre-evangelism strategies, using mass media, are called for, dependent upon levels of biblical awareness, attitudes, and propensity for persecut- ion, for some peoples, while employing more overt methods of proclamation with others. (25)

(3) Scientific Analysis and the ‘Description/prescription’ Syndrome.

Church growth people put great stress on the social and behavioural sciences, particularly social anthropology. The dangers here are self-evident. Sometimes these insights can be used uncritically: some of the presuppositions widely accepted in these disciplines are naturalistic. In practice, there can be a temptation by pastors and missionaries to look for ‘guidance by computer’ or technology rather than through the Word and prayer. Such expressions as ‘growth specialists’, ‘the business of witnessing’, ‘cost per person’, etc. are sometimes found in the literature of ‘elenctics’ (the ‘science of bringing people of non-Christian religiosity to repentance and faith in Christ’). Rene Padilla has suggested that ‘church growth people assume that you make Christians the way you make cars and sausages. Mass production, achieved by having the machinery properly regulated, is the way to do anything’. (26) Having now read fairly widely in the literature, and attended several schools for pastors run by church growth experts (both at Fuller Seminary and elsewhere), my personal contention would be that the social sciences are not used widely enough by them. Too much stress has been placed within anthropological disciplines and insights, and not enough in areas of contemporary sociology, particularly social psychology, and within that field, the dynamics of such areas of study as social class, communication theory, organizational theory, etc. For example, the advantages of a dialogic approach to evangelism in some cultures seem not to be taken seriously. Rather there is a somewhat blinkered view in the literature that proclamation and persuasion are the only viable or biblical modes. But the issue goes deeper. Basically, we have here a problem which is as ancient as philosophical analysis itself, namely the relationship between two levels of truth – the theoretical and the functional (ie. ‘what is orthodox?’ versus ‘what works?’). In religious contexts it is the question of the theological (Word) versus the methodological (the proclamation of the Word in concrete situations). Put another way, it is ‘pure’ versus ‘applied’. The polarization between theologians and the church growth people is a function of these tensions, I believe. Of course, busy pastors and evangelists complain that they have little time for serious theological reflection (‘and what’s the use of all that anyway?’). Conversely, very few highly skilled theologians are pastors of growing churches. Occasionally you’ll find a gifted preacher-theologian who preaches regularly to large congregations (James Stewart, Helmut Thielicke, John Stott), but it may be argued that such preachers have built their congregations around their own declamatory and other gifts, and such congregations are not fully functional in other respects. (Witness the exodus that usually happens when the Great Preacher leaves or dies).

The danger of ‘purism’ is in its propensity towards irrelevance. The danger of ‘appliedism’ is its preoccupation with ad hoc, pragmatic concerns. A purely utilitarian approach builds ministries out of needs, and its cousin, pragmatism, transforms ministry into a marketing strategy. Partly, too, it’s a matter of temperament. I find it hard to imagine some theologians running a sparkling talk-show: they’re just not gregarious people. (Eberhard Bethge says of Bonhoeffer: ‘Because he was lonely, he became a theologian and because he was a theologian he was lonely’). (27) Conversely, it would be hard to imagine a ‘productive’ pastor being reclusive! I would want to encourage pastors not to avoid the creative tension between dogma and experience, contemplation and action. In fact, these days, if we don’t learn both to be effective with people and walk with God, to be good practical stewards of the ministerial trust given to us, and to ‘centre down’, we’ll never win the battle against distress. A pastor these days – and, indeed because he/she wants to all things to the glory of God – has no option but to strive for excellence, both theologically and methodologically, both in exegetical and experiential fields. Back to the question of ‘integration’: there’s a burg- eoning literature on this subject from North America. In essence, I believe that the Holy Spirit – God at his most empirical – guides us into all truth. That truth can be theological, based on a study of the Word, or sociological, based on a study of God’s creatures, human beings. If our presuppositions are biblical, in both areas, I see few real problems. Re the description/ prescription issue: as Peter Wagner openly suggests, ‘church growth science’ is not merely analytical. It helps us maximise the use of energy and other resources for God’s greater glory. It enables us to detect errors and correct them before they do too much damage. It would be a mistake to claim too much, but some enthusiasts feel that with church growth insights we may even step as far ahead in God’s task of world evangelization as medicine did when aseptic surgery was introduced’. (28) Like the world missionary movement on the eve of the Edinburth 1910 Conference, McGavran sees ‘Afericasia’ ready and waiting for the gospel, so the task is essentially that of finding the correct methodology for maximizing the opport- unities. Thoughtful critics have found a couple of problems here. First, there seems to be little emphasis in the New Testament on a self-conscious strategy for church growth. (However, Paul does seem to suggest some intentionality in his focussing upon the entrepot cities of the Mediterranean, leading ultimately to Spain). Second, there is the problem of ‘manipulation’. Australian theologian Graeme Garrett writes: It is true that ‘scientific sociology’ includes amongst its many achievements the study of techniques and strategies for the manipulation of social groups toward certain predetermined ends. The highly skilled exploitation of such techniques in the realms of marketing, commerce and politics is notorious if not scandalous in contemporary Western culture. I do not wish to suggest that the Church Growth writers intend deliberately or cynically to engage in blatant forms of mass manipulation. My only point is that it is dangerous for the church to give even the appear- ance of using disguised forms of manipulation to ‘persuade’ people to become church members. The Gospel allows no warrant for such action. Not by any subtleties, but by ‘the open statement of the truth’ are we to ‘commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God’ (II Corinthians 4:2). Techniques may bring people to the church, they cannot bring them to faith in Christ. (29) Here we come up against the difficult problem of the distinction between ‘persuasion’ (which Paul says he does) and ‘propagandizing’. Is it possible to conceive of a kind of persuasion which does not ‘bend wills’ to some degree? I believe a more cogent criticism was advanced by Orland Costas, when he points out that church growth is a sign, not an instrument of mission. A sign, he says, is something which points beyond itself, so ‘multidimensional growth’ is a sign pointing to the presence of the kingdom. An instrument, on the other hand, is ‘a means whereby something is achieved, performed, or furthered’ (Webster). ‘In God’s mission, it is the church, not its growth, that is the instrument by which the mission is furthered and fulfilled. Multidimensional growth witnesses to the church’s faithfulness in the execution of its task.’ (30) This is a good reason, I believe, for aiming at ‘church health’ rather than ‘church growth’. If God grants an increase, well and good: if not, still well and good. Liv- ing organisms grow anyway, but growth is a by-product of life, not its cause. A church’s growth is not like that of a business: the church is to be evaluated, not by its profits or institutional success, but by its adherence to its Lord’s will and mandates.

(4) The ‘Success’ Orientation

For church growth theorists, the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) provides a rationale for success being a correlate of faithfulness. Wagner, for example, asks, ‘Why were the two servants who put their talents to work faithful and the one who did not unfaithful? Very simply, because they were successful’. Costas counters that the point of the parable is not the money they made, but, rather, the fact that they did not hide it away. They were faithful not bec- ause they were successful (made money) but rather, because they faithfully put to work the resources the Master had entrusted to them. (31) I believe both Wagner and Costas are half-right. It seems to me that the essence of faithful stewardship is that a steward does what his master wants him to do with the money: that is, he increases it. The wicked and faithless steward has nothing to show for his stewardship. Notice, however, that the man with two talents is not denigrated because he’s not a five-talent person. I have the feeling that the main problem is not with ‘success’ per se, but with the sort of sick competitive spirit we in the church have inherited from the commercial world around us. I believe there’s nothing wrong with being successful, provided our yardstick is between our ‘actual’ and our potential; provided we live A W Tozer’s dictum: ‘God may allow his servant to succeed when he has disciplined that servant to a point where he or she does not need to succeed to be happy. The one who is elated by success and cast down by failure is still a carnal person.’ (32) In other words, some successful pastors preside over churches with growing memberships, and other successful pastors have churches with a static or declining membership. Let us not forget that the New Testament offers us a vision of the church in the books of James, Peter and Revelation that is quite different to the celebrating church in Luke-Acts. The church also suffers. It is faithful not because it is succ- essful evangelistically, but because it is innocent, and hopeful in its life-and-death struggle in a hostile world.

Probably the major problem with the notion of ‘success’ is not biblical or theological but psychological. It’s interesting that the country most ‘success-oriented’ (the U.S.) is, in my view, the Western country where the church is most dynamic. Other nations eschewing the notion of success have the poorest church attendances. I believe there’s a connection there somewhere. A related notion has to do with ‘hope’ and ‘optimism’. In both his books The Humility of God and Christian Hope, John Macquarrie draws a sharp distinction between the two: …there is a great difference between hope and optimism. Hope is humble, trustful, vulnerable. Optimism is arrogant, brash, complacent. Hope has known the pang of suffering and has perhaps even felt the chill of despair. The word hope should not be lightly spoken by people who have never had any cause for despair. Only one who has cried de profundis can really appreciate the meaning of hope. By contrast, optimism has not faced the enormity of evil or the results of the fall of man and the disfiguring sin that affects all human life, both personal and social. What drives some people to atheism is not a genuinely biblical hope but the spectacle of an insensitive optimism, masquerading as such hope. (33) Now I do not have any problem with Macquarrie’s central thesis that ‘Our God is great enough to be humble.’ But I’m wondering why I can’t find words like Paul’s ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ in his argument? I believe the biblical idea of hope says something to us both in good times and bad, when our opportunities are apparent all around us, and when the going’s tough. Macquarrie, in my reading of him, limits his discussion to the latter. The main idea is, surely, God is with us in all our times and our testing – when we abound, and when we are abased. Probably the words ‘effectiveness’ and ‘godly confidence’ might be better in this context. ‘Effectiveness’ is the appropriate embodiment of faithfulness in given human contexts. (34) It involves the appropriate coordination of means and ends for the sake of the overall purpose – the extension of God’s kingdom (not ours). One is unfaithful if the aims are misdirected. One is ineffective if the goals are disembodied. But winning isn’t everything! As Vernon Grounds put it, we need ‘the faith to face failure’. In the church of the crucified Lord, one’s esteem should not be a function of ‘better’ or ‘smarter’ or ‘bigger’. For some congregations, faithfulness and effectiveness will issue in growth; for others it will not. For others, it may mean decline, without that church’s having a pathological or terminal illness! So let us not avoid the creative dialectic between being faithful in our love for God and others, and being as effect- ive as we can be in ministry and mission. The dangers of either deriving status and self-worth through ‘success’ or becoming bitter and cynical through ‘failure’ must be avoided at all costs.


There are many other issues we could have looked at. The church growth phenomenon bristles with them: the notion of evangelising ‘people groups’, the lack of an adequate theological/ecclesiological base, a truncated notion of ‘mission’, the question: how can people who have ‘made a decision for Christ’ be effectively nurtured and discipled?, the ‘strictness principle’ enunciated by Dean Kelley (note the title of his book Why Strict Churches are Strong), the question of goal-setting (churches which aim somewhere are more likely to hit the mark, but are numerical goals – whether of people or money – compatible with an Australian ethos?) and so on and on. McGavran has certainly started something! It is important to recognise that his unique contribution to missiological thinking was originally as a counterforce to the ‘mainline’ sending agencies, which were stressing devolution, abdication from proclamatory evangelism, emphasis on the horizontal rather than vertical dimensions of mission, etc. McGavran’s corrective was, I believe, truly prophetic. However, in doing some things well, he and other church growth protagonists have done other things poorly. In the area of mission, for example, they have committed themselves to making a part the whole: mission equals evangelism plus discipling. But mission in the teaching of the prophets and Jesus begins with justice (Micah 6:8, Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42). But that was customary in the sixties and seventies among evangelicals. It is a shame that we have so few theologian-evangelists in the modern church. The books on church growth are saying something very valuable indeed, but sometimes tend to be guilty of residing in ‘simplicity this side of complexity’. Conversely, many of the critics of the church growth movement are wallowing in ‘complexity the other side of simplicity’. May we all move to ‘simplicity the other side of complexity!’ The main issues, I believe, are not whether the church is growing, but whether we are authentically engaged in the mission of God in Christ, through the power of the Spirit. Is the church ‘transforming’ culture rather than being merely culture-affirming or culture-denying (to use H. Richard Niebuhr’s motif)? Someone has said the biggest business in modern societ- ies is that of ‘anxiety reduction’.

Potentially, church growth thinking, if ‘baptized’, can become for pastoral leaders a redemptive rather than a destructive force in their work for the kingdom. We need humbly to say, with John, ‘I am not the Messiah … I am not the expected prophet. I am a voice crying in the wilderness “Make straight the way of the Lord”. I am a herald, clearing the way for the King…’ But we also can say confidently, with Charles Wesley, ‘faith, mighty faith, the promise seizes and looks to that alone. Laughs at impossibilities, and cries, “It shall be done!”.’ A final word from David Pawson: if you wait until the wind and the weather are just right you will never sow anything – and never harvest anything either! (36)



Note: I’m editing this in 2011, and sometime I’ll figure out what the footnotes 1-9 refer to!

(1) Rowland Croucher, Church Growth Up-date, an unpublished paper, 1982. (2) Quote from The Episcopalian, 1977, in Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen (eds.), Understanding Church Growth and Decline, 1950-1976, New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979, p. 293. (3) Ibid, p. 297. (4) C. Peter Wagner, What Makes Churches Grow?, an unpublished paper, p. 2. (5) Regal, 1984. (6) ‘Must a Healthy Church be a Growing Church?’, Leadership, Winter, 1981, p. 128. (7) See Rowland Croucher, ‘Renewal in the Pastorate: An Analysis of Modern Clergy Needs’, unpublished paper, 1982 (8) ‘Clergy Morale’, Clergy Health, Vol 1, No. 3, 1979. My hunch is that church officials have the same attitude towards this phenomonon as doctors have to death and dying: it’s too stark an attack on their whole raison d’etre, so the research isn’t publicized too much. There was an interesting spate of letters in the British Catholic weekly, The Tablet, a few years ago, wondering if the correct number of Catholic priests leaving the active ministry during the past 20 years is 40,000 or 100,000! A couple of Southern Baptist leaders told me they lose 1,000 pastors every year. (9) One concomitant of the denominational ‘blind eye syndrome’ in this whole matter relates to the lack of on-going caring and support of these pastors. A Catholic priest told me he receiv- ed no help whatsoever from his superiors in his struggle, and has yet to get anything other than a complicated, very personal questionnaire, from the Vatican. A Baptist minister in Australia received no communication at all from his denomination’s headquarters – and only two letters of encouragement from his peers. When Charles Davis, the eminent British theologian, left the priesthood and the Catholic church he complained bitterly about the lack of love in it. (See the essays by Desmond Fisher and Jerome Herwin in On the Run, Spirituality for the Seventies, ed. Michael F. McCauley, Dove Communications, East Malvern, Vic., 1974, pp. 134ff and 144ff.) (10) A few years ago the Melbourne Age had this ‘Odd Spot’ on its front page: ‘Secured to his church steeple by a safety belt, the Reverend Gary Burgess of East Millstone, New Jersey, ate a hearty meal of roast lamb and angel food cake as he promised his congregation he would if 200 or more attended a service’ (14.6.84). Such antics are an outcome of the hype inevitably associated with too great a preoccupation with numbers. (11) McGavran insists that ‘a principle and irreplaceable purpose of mission is the (numerical) growth of the church’ (Understanding Church Growth, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1970, p.32). (12) David Pawson, ‘Let My People Grow’, BUZZ Magazine, November 1976, pp.26-27. (13) Matthew 5:16; 9:37-38; 10:1-40; 13:1-8, 18-23, 31, 47; Mark 1:17; 4:1-8, 13-20; Luke 8:5-8, 11-15; 10:2; John 8:12; 9:5; 14:21-24; 15:5, 8; Romans 8:15; 1 Corinthians 3:9-11; Ephesians 1:5; 2:22; 4:14ff; 1 Peter 2:2,4ff. Orlando Costas,


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