Once I had a friend—I’ll call him Bill—who worked out every day at the gym. When we got together, he liked to flex his bicep and say, “Greg, feel this!” Bill’s muscles were rock hard.
Then one day, I heard terrible news: Bill had died of a heart attack. Even though he appeared robust and powerful, his heart was diseased. Inwardly, as it turned out, Bill was a weakling.
I keep Bill in mind when I think about the church today. Outwardly, everything can look promising. A ministry may appear to be going very well.
Yet the inside reality can be another story. What makes a church body grow big doesn’t necessarily make it grow healthy.
The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of large churches, including “megachurches” (congregations of 1,000 or more), around the country. As a result of pastoring a large congregation, I’m frequently asked about our success at Harvest Christian Fellowship. What kind of church growth formula do we follow? Can what we do at Harvest be applied to any church, anywhere, with similar results?
I understand these questions and the motivations behind them. Pastors would rather preach to people than to open spaces. And let’s face it, something would be terribly wrong if Christians weren’t interested in seeing churches grow. But it’s time to take a hard look at what church growth means.
In an article titled “The Myth of Church Growth” featured in Current Thoughts and Trends, David Dunlap cites some troubling statistics.
For example, during the very time megachurches have sprouted across the landscape, the proportion of Americans who claim to be “born again” has remained a constant 32 percent. According to Dunlap, growth isn’t coming from conversions but from transfers—up to 80 percent of all growth taking place today.
He goes on to quote C. Peter Wagner, one of the leading spokesmen for the church growth movement, who admits, “I don’t think there is anything intrinsically wrong with the church growth principles we’ve developed … yet somehow they don’t seem to work.”
I would suggest one reason they don’t work is because they tend to approach church as if it were a business.
For example, some church growth experts are telling pastors their “customers” no longer attend to commune with God but to “consume” a personal or family service.
In a recent survey of 1,000 church attenders, respondents were asked, “Why does the church exist?” According to 89 percent, the church’s purpose was “to take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs.” Only 11 percent said the purpose of the church is “to win the world for Jesus Christ.”
These attitudes concern me and many other observers deeply. A business-driven response may only make things worse. In the long run, if we train consumers instead of communers, we’ll end up with customers instead of disciples.
It might fill up an auditorium, but it will never turn the world upside down for Christ.