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The Church Growth Movement: 3 Dangerous Realities

Another unintended dark side of Church Growth is that it produced another mission station mentality.

Our best hopes focused on making the church so attractive that even a lost person would want to come inside to discover Jesus. What happened, however, for the most part is we made the church become a great place to be for Christians or a “warehousing effect.” With all our best intentions, we must guard against—yes, that’s right, guard against—making our church “the place to be.” We must avoid “come and see” mentality that tempts our people to “do life” at church 24/7.

The church can never become the place where I live, work and play. My neighborhood is where real people live.

I am not sent by God to a church facility, no matter how convenient and impressive it may be. I am sent away from the church gathered to my tribe and household with the Good News of the Gospel. That is where transformational movements take place that engage every man, woman and child with the Gospel. So, too many in church growth focused on the barn, rather than how we might live on mission among the white fields. When focusing too much on the barn, we sometimes forget the wheat will not harvest itself.

3. A Sociological Phenomenon

Much of Church Growth theory was based on sociology—and sociology is not a bad thing. We use sociology in missiology because we can understand social structures. For example, in missiology, we understand the sociological realities of the people we are trying to reach. We know, for example, some cultures see family in a certain way and we take that into account.

Thus, the focus became (at times) focused on using sociological tools and realities to reach people. As such, evangelism was mistakenly depersonalized by making it the responsibility of the institutional church as it engaged its society, rather than individuals who were reaching and serving others. Bricks, mortar and programs do not take away my responsibility to be a living epistle in my neighborhood through word and deed. The end result was, as I see it, too much sociology and not enough focus on the mission itself.

Now, it is important to note all three of these problems were caused, in some ways, by reactions to the issues before them.

For example, I believe the missio dei movement (1950-1970) gave birth to the Church Growth Movement (1960-1990), which gave birth to the missional church movement (1990-today). Though I do not have the space to unpack all that here, I think it is important to note most of the Church Growth proponents were asking questions about how best to reach more people for Jesus, when many in the mainline traditions had lost that focus (when the missio dei became so overwhelmingly focused on societal transformation—see an earlier blog post here).

In my next post I will conclude my series by telling you how the Kingdom of God has gained because of the Church Growth Movement. Until then, feel free to ask questions or give opinions in the comments!  

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College and serves as Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books.