Sounding Out the Idols of Church Growth

Os Guinness

The King is dead! Long live the King!" As with royalty earlier, so with popular movements and trends today - the passing of one signals the prevailing of another. Thus in the United States in the 1990s, influence of the Christian Right is clearly on the wane, as noted in chapter 3. Meanwhile the church-growth movement is succeeding it as one of the nationally prominent religious movements.

The church-growth movement is committed to "effective evangelism" through such modern means of "growing churches" as management, marketing, and mega-churches. Its goals are laudable and ambitious; as C. Peter Wagner, a leading proponent, states them: "to make more effective the propagation of the gospel and the multiplication of churches on new ground" (original emphasis) and thus to "seeing America evangelized in our generation."1 Can the movement attain these goals? Its proponents argue that its passion for mission and effective evangelism can lead to a harvest of new Christians and reverse the secularization of the West. Some believe such innovations will bring about a reformation in the worldwide church. Others wonder whether the secrets of successful mega-churches can be carried over to small local churches. But the greater question is: Will the church-growth movement remain self-critical, or has the reliance on the so-called "new ground" become an insidious new idolatry?

Any movement that not only hits Time and Christianity Today simultaneously but is viewed by so many Christian leaders as a remedy for Christian ineffectiveness deserves to be noticed, understood, and assessed. This chapter is such an assessment-a constructive critique of the church-growth movement. My purpose is to raise questions so that we may engage this vital movement with our eyes open and our ears alert to be as self-critical and truly discerning as the gospel requires.

The Movement of the 1990s

Needless to say, the roots of the church-growth movement are far from the late twentieth-century world of the West-Donald MacGavran's missionary work in India gave rise to the movement in the thirties. But it is no accident that the movement has now passed beyond its missionary phase and its early American phase. In the form of the mega-churches, it is coming into its own in a third phase, in a highly popularized form.

Many people identify the church-growth movement narrowly with its specific architects and advocates-most famously, MacGavran, Wagner, and the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth School - or the most visible examples of its current success -most recently, such best-sellers as George Barna's The Frog in the Kettle, Marketing the Church, and User-Friendly Churches. Some immediately think of the burgeoning "mega-" or "super-churches" on the "top ten" list, each with a weekly attendance far above five thousand people.

But as I use the term church growth, these individuals and churches are part of a much wider and more important movement that is linked by a series of underlying commitments: to Christian renewal through renewal of the church, as opposed to politics or the culture; to renewal of the church through renewal of the local church, as opposed to the denomination or para-church ministry; to the renewal of the local church through the renewal of mission, as opposed to other priorities; and, most important, to the renewal of mission along one of two avenues-charismatic renewal or using the behavioral sciences' insights and tools to aid effective evangelism. In this final area, proponents use tools from the fields of management, marketing, psychology, and communications (the "new ground" mentioned earlier). Viewed in this broader way, the church-growth movement is a "back to basics" movement with a special modern twist.

The movement has spiritual, cultural, and historical significance for evangelical churches. First, spiritually the church-growth movement represents a concern for many of the most-needed components of Christian mission, renewal, and reformation. This can be seen by stressing the movement's most obvious emphases-the centrality of the church, the priority of mission, the possibility of growth, the necessity of speaking to outsiders, the acknowledgment of culture and of cultures, the insistence on real results, and the wisdom of using the best insights and technologies proffered by the key disciplines of the human sciences.

Second, culturally the church-growth movement represents the most influential movement in the American churches in the 1990s, and a significant expression of the search for the lost authority of faith. The church-growth movement and the Christian Right are only two of many movements within the wider Christian community. But the contrast between their respective standings in the early 1980s and the early 1990s tells the story of the cultural shifts that have occurred from one decade to the next. For all the sustained activism of Operation Rescue and the talk of a new conservative political party, the Christian Right is largely a spent force; the shift to the centrality of local churches is both vital and illuminating.

Ten years ago the attention was on the Christian Right; today it is on church growth. Then the cry was "Mobilize!"; now it's "Modernize!" Then the focus was politics and public life; now it is church and mission. Then the reliance was on populism and political strength; now it is on entrepreneurialism and managerial strength. Then the orientation was the past and the restoration of the nineteenth-century consensus; now it is the future and renewal. Then the attention was on special-interest groups, epitomized by the Moral Majority; now it is on the mega-churches, epitomized by the recent explosion of churches that have more than three thousand members.

Third, historically the church-growth movement is a significant new initiative in the long story of Christian innovation and adaptation. In essence, it is the most significant attempt by the conservative churches in North America to grope toward a new stance in a society that sidelines faith -because it is increasingly secular in its public life and pluralistic in its private life. This fact is easily overlooked because of the movement's own rhetoric. Church-growth leaders speak and write about Christians and churches who are "hidebound," "stuck-in-the-mud," or "dying for change." "Frankly," one author writes without a sense of historical perspective, "evangelical Christianity has done well on revelation (the Bible) but poorly on relevance (the culture)."2 This gives the impression of a Neanderthal church incapable of change.

Certainly, stories of diehard resistance to change are easy to find. But the Christian faith is unrivalled among the world religions for its genius in innovation and adaptation. And no branch of the Christian faith has demonstrated this genius more often and more successfully than the evangelical movement.

All innovation is open to question and different assessments. And the darker side of this innovative genius is the church's proneness to compromise with the spirit of its age. But from the adaptations of the early church-for example, Augustine's translations of the language and ideas of Platonism down to the innovations of eighteenth-century Methodism and nineteenth-century revivalism, Christians have been tirelessly determined to innovate and adapt for the sake of the gospel.

Using modernity's insights and technologies could therefore lead to one of the most fruitful periods of innovations in the church's two-thousand-year history. The managerial revolution, for example, could provide the church with a large, varied, and powerful toolbox. To some people, the term "manage" has a sinister ring of manipulation-not least because of the "scientific paternalism" of early management studies. But that is unfair. After all, the core theme of management is essentially that of stewardship, whether of people, resources, or time. John Wesley's nickname in the Holy Club in Oxford was "the manager," and the same brilliance in organization and personal discipline is what gave the Methodists their name.

In sum, innovation is not a problem. If Christians would use the best fruits of the managerial revolution constructively and critically, accompanied by a parallel reformation of truth and theology, the potential for the gospel would be incalculable.

Whatever criticisms need to be raised, this point is beyond dispute: the church-growth movement is extraordinarily influential and significant within American churches today. At its best, it should be applauded. Where it is not at its best, it requires criticism so that it might be. The church of Christ concerned for the glory of Christ needs more-not less-of the best of true church growth.

Weaknesses to Watch

Like many movements, the church-growth movement is a grand mixture of things good, bad, and in-between. The good is worthy of praise, and we have cited some of the movement's strong contributions. Our present concern, however, is not the, good but rather the bad and the in-between, and in particular the range of problems that grow from the movement's uncritical use of such insights and tools of modernity as management and marketing. For if the movement has a threefold positive significance, it also has a fourfold weakness.

First, the very name, "church-growth movement," is confusing because both words are capable of a double meaning. On the one hand, does the term church refer to "the people of God," including all the people of God in a local area, or to a particular local church and its facility and programs? The two are not necessarily the same. If the distinction is not kept clear, the admirable growth in the first sense can be used to cover a less admirable growth in the second, which actually hurts the first. One example is when it leads to an essentially consumerist competition between particular local churches that simultaneously thrusts up super-churches and impoverishes other churches and the overall work of God in a local area.

On the other hand, is the term growth to be understood quantitatively, in terms of size and numbers, or qualitatively, in terms of depth, character, and spirit? Both sorts of growth are essential to the church, and qualitative growth does not exclude quantifiable growth. Nor does the quantitative growth exhaust qualitative growth. To pretend otherwise through careless use of the terms is a cardinal error of modern times and a fallacy in much church-growth rhetoric. Sometimes the difference is difficult to see. All too often it is easy. As one mega-church pastor boasted about his church to the Wall Street Journal, "It is the fastest growing church" in the nation. "I want the biggest church I can think of."

Second, the church-growth movement has two common deficiencies. On the one hand, its theological understanding is often superficial, with almost no element of biblical criticism. As a well-known proponent states, "I don't deal with theology. I'm simply a methodologist"-as if his theology were thereby guaranteed to remain critical and his methodology neutral. But in fact, theology is rarely more than marginal in the church-growth movement and discussion of the traditional marks of the church is virtually nonexistent. Instead, methodology, or technique, is at the center and in control. The result is a methodology only occasionally in search of a theology.

On the other hand, the movement relies on a minimal sense of historical awareness. It is particularly unaware of comparisons with earlier periods that could throw light on the possibilities and pitfalls we face today.

Two periods give fruitful parallels: the late eighteenth century and the story of European liberalism's engagement with the "cultured despisers," and the early nineteenth century and the story of American evangelicalism's fateful sea-change during the era of Jacksonian populism. This earlier nineteenth-century change was not so much from Calvinism to Arminianism as from theology to experience, from truth to technique, from elites to populism, and from an emphasis on "serving God" to an emphasis on "servicing the self" in serving God.

Third, the church-growth movement has two common flaws through which the confusions and deficiencies mentioned above become more serious. On the one hand, it employs an unbalanced application of a biblical principle. Known technically as "contextualization," or more simply as "relevance," this principle is indispensable to communication and obviously rooted in Scripture. The supreme pattern of the contextualization and relevance is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, and such passages as 1 Corinthians 9:19-22 capture its full dynamic perfectly (climaxing in Paul's summary: "I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some").

Thus the record of Scripture and Christian history is equally clear: the principle of identification is basic to communication and is covered well today in such notions as contextualization and relevance, as well as in such church-growth principles as "niche marketing," "audience-driven," "seeker-friendly," "full-service churches," and the "homogeneous unit principle."

But Scripture and history are also clear. Without employing critical tension, the principle of identification is a recipe for compromise and capitulation. It is no accident that the charge of being "all things to all people" has become a popular synonym for compromise. If the process of becoming "all things to all people" is to remain faithful to Christ, it has to climax in clear persuasion and genuine conversion. Joining people where they are is only the first step in the process, not the last. Unless it resists this danger, the church-growth movement will prove to be a gigantic exercise in cultural adjustment and surrender.

On the other hand-and here is the main doorway to idolatry many in the movement employ an uncritical understanding of modernity and its insights and tools. "Truth is truth," as George Macdonald put it, "whether on the lips of Jesus or Balaam."3 It would therefore be odd for any Christian to deny the illuminating helpfulness of the social sciences. At the same time, however, it is amazing to witness the lemming-like rush of church leaders who forget theology in the charge after the latest insights of sociology-regardless of where the ideas come from or where they lead to. Carelessly handled, innovation and adaptation become a form of corruption, capitulation, and idolatry.

Fourth, the church-growth movement carries two potential dangers. They can be summed up simply in the words "no God" and "no grandchildren." In the first case, the problem results because the insights and tools of modernity can be so brilliant and effective that there no longer appears to be any need for God. In the second case, the problem arises because the tools of modernity are successful in one generation but cannot be sustained to the third generation. The success undermines the succession. Many super-churches are simply artificially inflated local churches that will not be able to survive their super-growth.

In short, through these weaknesses and above all through its uncritical use of the "new ground" of modernity, the church-growth movement has the potential to unleash a deadly form of idolatry and practical atheism in the churches. The result would be one more contemporary testament to the extraordinary power of religion that has no need for God.

Critical discernment is essential. Two useful pictures of what it means to develop critical discernment should challenge Christians. One comes from the eminent Christian social scientist Peter Berger, who is a renowned analyst of modernity. He warns that whoever sups with the devil of modernity had better have a long spoon. "The devilry of modernity has its own magic." The believer "who sups with it will found his spoon getting shorter and shorter-until the last supper in which he is left alone at the table, with no spoon at all and an empty plate. "4 Our challenge, then, is to dine at the banquet of modernity-but with long spoons.

The other picture comes from Friederich Nietzsche's The Twilight of the Idols. In words that are more biblical than he intended, Nietzsche wrote, "There are more idols in the world than there are realities."5 Our task, then, is to "sound out idols," to "pose questions with a hammer," to be iconoclasts, and see whether many of the things taken for granted in our time are in fact hollow, not real-mere "idols of the age."

We now turn to six reminders that will help cultivate critical discernment and help avoid idolatry in the church-growth movement's engagement with modernity. The best of the movement will doubtless pass through unscathed. Much of the rest requires tougher scrutiny.

One Main Question

When all is said and done, the church-growth movement will stand or fall by one question. In implementing its vision of church growth, is the church of Christ primarily guided and shaped by its own character and calling-or by considerations and circumstances alien to itself? Or, to put the question differently, is the church of Christ a social reality truly shaped by a theological cause, namely the Word and Spirit of God?

Behind this question lies the fact that the church of God "lets God be God" and is the church only when it lives and thrives finally by God's truths and God's resources. If the church makes anything else the principle of its existence, Christians risk living unauthorized lives of faith, exercising unauthorized ministries, and proclaiming an unauthorized gospel.

Yet, that is precisely the temptation modernity gives to us. The very brilliance and power of its tools and insights mean that eventually there is no need to let God be God. In fact, there is no need for God at all in order to achieve measurable success. Modernity creates the illusion that, when God commanded us not to live' by bread alone but by every word that comes from His mouth, He was not aware of the twentieth century. The very success of modernity may undercut the authority and driving power of faith until religion becomes merely religious rhetoric or organizational growth without spiritual reality.

In light of this, it is curious that the church-growth movement's "new ground," its use of modernity, is one of its most prominent but least examined features. This first reminder therefore deals with the first and greatest problem modernity poses for the church-growth movement-because it appears to be no problem at all. It is most dangerous at its best-not its worst-when its benefits and blessings are unarguable. No civilization in history has amplified the temptation of living "by. bread alone" with such power and variety and to such effect. In today's convenient, climate-controlled spiritual world created by the managerial and therapeutic revolutions, nothing is easier than living apart from God. Idols are simply the ultimate techniques of human causation and control - without God.

One Florida pastor with a seven-thousand-member mega-church expressed the fallacy well: "I must be doing right or things wouldn't be going so well. "6 One Christian advertising agent, who both represented the Coca Cola Corporation and engineered the "I Found It" evangelistic campaign, stated the point brazenly: "Back in Jerusalem where the church started, God performed a miracle there on the day of Pentecost. They didn't have the benefits of buttons and media, so God had to do a little supernatural work there. But today, with our technology, we have available to us the opportunity to create the same kind of interest in a secular society." Put simply, another church-growth consultant claims "five to ten million baby boomers would be back in the fold within a month" if churches adopted three simple changes: (1) "advertise"; (2) let people know about "product benefits"; and (3) be "nice to new people."7

If Jesus Christ is true, the church is more than just another human institution. He alone is its head. He is its sole source and single goal. His grace uniquely is its effective principle. What moves the church is not finally interchangeable with the dynamics of even the closest of sister institutions. When the best of modern insights and tools are in full swing, there should always be a remainder, an irreducible character that is more than the sum of all the human, the natural, and the organizational.

The church of Christ is more than spiritual and theological, but never less. Only when first things are truly first, over even the best and most attractive of second things, will the church be free of idols, free to let God be God, free to be itself, and free to experience the growth that matters.

Two Main Roots of the Challenge

The second reminder deals with a further problem modernity poses for the church-growth movement-modernity's influence is far deeper and more double-edged than many church-growth proponents realize, because of the nature of modernity's two main roots.

Modernization and modernity remain widely misunderstood today. Some people, for example, turn them into a kind of "rich man's Marxism," a deterministic movement that will inevitably sweep the world with prosperity, progress, and democratic revolutions. Christians, however, tend to fall foul of a simpler misunderstanding. Many use the word modernity as if it were a fancy word for "change" or simply a matter of being "up to date." They therefore treat it as something simple and straightforward-as if one can understand it through monitoring the latest trends and statistics - and put it to use simply like a new fax machine or laser printer.

Modernity is much more than that. It refers to the character and system of the world produced by the forces of modernization and development-centered above all on the premise that the "top down" causation of God and the supernatural has been decisively replaced by the "bottom up" causation of human designs and products. Modernity is therefore not a fancy word for "change," and little of it can be understood merely by watching trends and keeping up with the latest technologies. To grasp modernity is a challenge-it requires an understanding of the whole, not merely the parts. Ironically, when we wrestle with a tough-minded overview of modernity, it turns out to be far from modern.

Modernity's replacement of "top down" God-centered living with "bottom up" human-centered living represents a titanic revolution in human history and experience. We can trace its origins in two main ways. One way is to focus on human beings and the impact of their ideas. Thus, the road to modernity proceeds from the revolutionary changes in ideas to the way changes have affected society throughout the centuries. This mode of analysis goes back at least to the seventeenth-century scientific revolution and follows the story through the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the nineteenth-century romantic movement to the modernist and postmodernist movements in the twentieth century.

The rarer but equally important way to analyze modernity and face the challenge is to focus on society and social change. The path is traced in reverse as we follow the revolutionary changes in society to the way they have affected ideas. This mode of analysis traces back to major structural and institutional developments-supremely those that resulted from the capitalist revolution in the fifteenth century, the technological and industrial revolution in the eighteenth century, and the communications revolution in the twentieth century.

This is not the place for a comprehensive analysis of the twin roots of modernity. What matters for our inquiry is this: The world of modernity that has been produced by such a combination of revolutionary forces must be taken with the utmost seriousness because its impact now pervades religion. Thus when the church-growth movement relies on the insights and tools of modernity for its "new ground," it does not rely on something that is neutral or entirely benevolent. At the very least, there is a gigantic paradox in the relationship between modernity and the Christian faith that church-growth proponents should be aware of.

One way to express the paradox is to say that modernity provides both the single greatest opportunity the church has ever faced and its single greatest challenge. The opportunity exists because more people in more societies are more open to the gospel in the modern world than in any previous era in history. So modernity is to us what the Greek language and Roman roads were to the first-century disciples, and the printing press and sailing ships were to believers at the time of the Reformation.

And yet, after examining the impact of modernity on a sense of truth, transcendence, and tradition-and on a sense of the totality and integration of faith in every part of life-we can appreciate why modernity is also the single greatest challenge the church has ever faced. Such is the nature and extent of its damage to faith in many parts of the modernized world that it combines the subtlety of the challenge of gnosticism with the open menace of persecutions like those of Nero, Diocletian, and Mao Tse-tung. Some have labeled the lethal impact of modernity on religion as "iron cage," "gigantic steel hammer," "runaway juggernaut," and "acid rain of the spirit." Such descriptions are well merited.

Another way to express the paradox is that modernity simultaneously makes evangelism infinitely easier, and discipleship infinitely harder. Ponder the fact that the twentieth century was heralded as "the Christian Century," summed up aptly at the beginning of the century in John R. Mott's slogan - "the evangelization of the world in this generation." Yet the century is ending, as Jacques Ellul says, in a situation closer to the saying of Jesus "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" The problem is not that Christians have disappeared, but that Christian faith has become so deformed. Under the influence of modernity, we modern Christians are literally capable of winning the world while losing our own souls.

Despite this challenge, evangelicals display a fateful shortsightedness in two directions: toward modernity and toward those parts of Scripture that, by application, are either critical of the premises of modernity or a needed antidote to its seductions. Consider, for example, God's anger at King David for succumbing to the devil's temptation to rely on numbers (1 Chronicles 21, 27). Meanwhile, Asa was condemned because he "resorted to physicians" rather than seeking guidance of the Lord (2 Chronicles 16:12, NEB). Similarly, God judged Israel during the reign of Hezekiah for fortifying their walls, stockpiling their weapons, and harnessing the water resources, "but you did not look to the Maker of it all" (Isaiah 22:11, NEB).

Anyone who ponders such passages can only wonder at the contrast between the enduring realism of Scripture and our dismaying gullibility in the face of modernity.

Three Main Dangers of Modernity

The third reminder deals with yet another way modernity poses problems for the church-growth movement: through its direct damage to faith. Here at last, one might expect a realistic understanding of modernity. But in fact most Christian believers have not faced up to modernity's fundamental damage to faith, for several reasons. One reason it is easy to overlook modernity's damage to religion is that the overall consequences of modernization are so positive. Which of us, for example, would choose to go back to previous generations if we considered the blessings of health alone, not to speak of the advantages of travel and communication?

Modernity's real damage, however, must be faced. For certain lethal trends are at work in the principles and processes of modernity. Once again, a comprehensive account would take us a long way from our task. But there is broad agreement on the three main trends reckoned to be the culprits.

Stated briefly, the damaging trends are secularization, privatization, and pluralization. Through secularization, modernity removes successive sectors of society from the decisive influence of religious ideas and institutions. Through privatization, modernity produces a cleavage between the private and public sectors of life-the private sector commonly being the only place where religion is free to flourish. Through pluralization, modernity multiplies the number of options people have in the private sphere at all levels-including that of faiths, worldviews, and ideologies. The result of this pluralization is a greater sense of relativism, subjectivism, uncertainty, and anxiety surrounding religion in the modern world.

Unquestionably the component that bears directly on the church-growth movement is what Max Weber called "rationalization." This is the first of the two underlying dynamics of secularization. (The other is differentiation.) Rationalization has meant that religious ideas are less meaningful and religious institutions are more marginal because of modernity's advance. More and more of what was formerly left to God, or human initiative, or the processes of nature, is now classified, calculated, and controlled by the systematic application of reason and technique. What counts in the rationalized world is efficiency, predictability, quantifiability, productivity, the substitution of technology for the human, and-from first to last-control over uncertainty.

For religion, the result of rationalization is what Weber also called "disenchantment" (and C. S. Lewis called "a new enchantment"). All the "magic and mystery" of life is reduced and removed-not so much unwanted as unnecessary. No one in the process is necessarily hostile to religion. Rather, as technique and the "figure it out" rationality spread further and further, the decisiveness of faith is rendered more and more irrelevant. As social scientist Philip Rieff sums it up, "What characterizes modernity, I think, is just this idea that men need not submit to any power - higher or lower - other than their own."8 Whether said with defiance by the few or left unsaid but practiced by the many, religion that is irrelevant in practice becomes practically irrelevant. There is no need for God, even in His church.

The two most easily recognizable hallmarks of secularization in America are the exaltation of numbers and of technique. Both are prominent in the church-growth movement. In its fascination with statistics and data at the expense of truth, this movement is characteristically modern. Some people argue that the emphasis on quantifiable measures - on counting - is the central characteristic of a rationalized society. Thus the United States has government by polling, television programming by ratings, sports commentary by statistics, education by grade-point averages, and academic tenure by the number of publications. In such a world of number crunchers, bean counters, and computer analysts, the growth of churches as a measurable, "fact-based" business enterprise is utterly natural.

The problem with this mentality is that quantity does not measure quality. Numbers have little to do with truth, excellence, or character. As one sociologist says, "Big Mac," even with billions and billions of hamburgers served, need not mean "Good Mac." But what is misleading at the trivial level of fast food becomes dangerous as one moves through sports prowess, educational attainment, and presidential character to spiritual depth. For church growth viewed in measurable terms, such as numbers, is trivial compared with growth in less measurable but more important terms, such as faith, character, and godliness. Having growth in terms of numbers, of course, does not rule out the more important spiritual growth. But it does not necessarily include this type of growth either.

A telltale preoccupation with technique is also prominent in the church-growth movement and is linked to secularization.. Life is viewed as a set of problems, each set having a rational solution, an identifiable expert, and therefore a practical mechanism to effect it. Take the example of the changing profiles of the pastor. Needless to say, distortions of the ministry are not new. In 1886, Nation magazine reported: "Indeed, so far has the church caught the spirit of the age, so far has it become a business enterprise, that the chief test of ministerial success is now the ability to `build up' a church. Executive, managerial abilities are now more in demand than those which used to be considered the highest in a clergyman."9

Anyone who doubts this shift has only to look at church-growth literature and check for such chapters as "Portrait of the Effective Pastor." The bulk of such chapters keeps theology and theological references to a minimum-little more than a cursory reference to the pastor's "personal calling" and to "God's vision for the church." In their place are discussions of such themes as delegating, confidence, interaction, decision making, visibility, practicality, accountability, and discernment-the profile of the pastor as CEO.

Unquestionably the discussion is admirable. But unquestionably, too, the discussion is only of "the interchangeable." There is nothing there about the "irreducible," the "remainder," and the otherwise inexplicable. Thus the leadership qualities could apply in a hundred other organizations after all, they once did, and were simply borrowed. Worse still, the disadvantage of the CEO-Pastor, as increasing numbers of them are discovering, is that those who live like CEOs are fired like CEOs - and spiritual considerations have as little to do with the ending as with the beginning and the middle. Small wonder that one eminent Christian leader returned home from a church-growth conference puzzled. There had been "literally no theology," he said. "In fact, there had been no serious reference to God at all."

Four Main Steps in Compromise

The fourth reminder deals with the dynamics of compromise with the world. Christian history is a two-thousand-year conversation between the church and the world. As Christians we are called to be in the world, but not of it. Throughout the centuries Christians have lived out this tension in many ways. Some, at the one extreme, are neither of the world nor in it, and therefore are isolated. Others, at the other extreme, are both in the world and of it, and therefore are compromised.

Doubtless, few on either side would disagree with the ideals of the other, though cultural conservatives would stress the ideal of resistance to the world and cultural liberals would stress relevance in it. At the same time, almost no one would dispute that the biblical challenge is to be balanced. Everyone, however extreme in reality, would consider his or her own position the perfect model of balance. Beyond question, too, evangelicals have traditionally been toward the conservative pole, stressing cognitive defiance; whereas liberals have been on the progressive side, emphasizing cognitive bargaining with the cultured despisers of the gospel.

But today we are confronted with a staggering change in the dynamism of this age-old dialogue. At the high noon of modernity, the influence of the world has become so powerful, pervasive, and appealing that the traditional stance of cognitive defiance has become rare and almost unthinkable.

Compromise is compromise regardless of when, how, or why it happens - though certainly, there are qualifications to it. Thus Christian compromise with the world is usually unconscious, and not deliberate. It can be a matter of lifestyle as easily as belief. And, mercifully, few people go the whole way. Nonetheless, the Christian must recognize and counter the four distinct steps involved in compromise with the thinking or behavior of the world.

The first and crucial step toward compromise is that of assumption. Nothing may be further from a believer's mind than compromise, but like the Chinese journey of a thousand miles, the road to compromise begins in a small way. Some aspect of modern life or thought is entertained not only as significant, and therefore worth acknowledging, but as superior to what Christians now know or do, and therefore worth assuming as true.

The second step toward compromise is that of abandonment. Everything that does not fit in with the new assumption (made in step one) is either discounted or cut out. What is involved in this step is not just a matter of altering tactics but of altering truth itself. Something modern is assumed to be true and proper. Therefore everything that is no longer assertable in the face of it must go.

The third step toward compromise is adaptation. Something new is assumed, something old is abandoned, and everything else is adapted. In other words, what remains of traditional beliefs and practices is altered to fit in with the new assumption. It is translated into the language and expectations of the new assumption, which becomes the controlling assumption.

The fourth step toward compromise is assimilation. This is the logical culmination of the first three. Something modern is assumed (step one). As a consequence, something traditional is abandoned (step two), and everything else is adapted (step three). At the end of the line, Christian assumptions are absorbed by the modern ones. The gospel has been assimilated to the shape of culture, often without a remainder.

Perhaps the most blatant example of this perverse bias toward compromise was the World Council of Churches' dictum in 1966, "The world must set the agenda for the Church." Three decades later, it is hard to believe that such an advance warning of pre-emptive capitulation could have been trumpeted as a lofty and self-evident principle. But it is also worth checking to see whether there are similar inanities in the church-growth movement today.

Take, for example, the current church-growth infatuation with marketing the church. It echoes Bruce Barton's 1920s' best-seller, The Man Nobody Knows, which portrayed Jesus as "the founder of modern business" and His parables as "the most powerful advertisements of all time." Apparently, Jesus' saying "I must be about my Father's business" was taken with a literalistic seriousness worthy of a Muslim fundamentalist.

It still is. Consider the progression in the following sentences, taken from church-growth treatment on the subject of marketing: "The Church is a business." / "Marketing is essential for a business to operate successfully." / "The Bible is one of the world's great marketing texts." / "However, the point is indisputable: The Bible does not warn against the evils of marketing." / "So it behooves us not to spend time bickering about techniques and processes." / "Think of your church not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency - an entity that exists to satisfy people's needs." / "The marketing plan is the Bible of the marketing game; everything that happens in the life of the product occurs because the plan wills it."

Those statements contain truths, half-truths, quarter-truths, and flat-out errors. "It is also critical," one author adds, "that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign." That statement is utterly wrong, yet it is almost canonical to much of the church-growth movement.

Is it correct that the "sovereign audience" is "a fundamental principle of Christian communication"? This seems to be a dangerously distorted half-truth and a recycling of the error of classical liberalism. This approach to affluent consumers of the twentieth century may carry the same seeds of compromise as Friedrich Schleiermacher's approach to the cultured despisers of the gospel in the eighteenth century.

Like the Bereans in the New Testament, we have to examine such statements for ourselves and make our own biblical assessment. But while many people still appear moonstruck by the recent discovery of the sovereign audience, it is worth pondering a New Yorker lament about what is lost in the brave, new "audience-driven" preaching of the day:

The preacher, instead of looking out upon the world, looks out upon public opinion, trying to find out what the public would like to hear. Then he tries his best to duplicate that, and bring his finished product into a marketplace in which others are trying to do the same. The public, turning to our culture to find out about the world, discovers there is nothing but its own reflection. The unexamined world, meanwhile, drifts blindly into the future.10


Five Main Ironies

The fifth reminder deals with the unintended consequences of Christians engaging uncritically with modernity. Irony, ironically, is a profoundly biblical theme that does not figure strongly in the thinking of most Christians. Yet no other religion rivals the Christian faith in providing such a foundation for a strong view of irony. Because human unbelief is essentially a matter of the "truth held in unrighteousness," Christians can always count on the fact that the "truth will come out" regardless of the denials of unbelief, that the consequences of human action will always be other than we intended, and that reality will always have the last laugh. Irony, in short, is not merely a subject for writers or cultural commentators; it is a key part of the Christian understanding of life.

It takes a developed sense of irony to appreciate the present position of Protestant evangelicalism in America. This is significant for our discussion because evangelicalism is the source and chief exponent of the church-growth movement. These ironies are stated briefly, without comment.

First, Protestants today need the most protesting and reforming. Second, evangelicals and fundamentalists have become the most worldly tradition in the church. Third, conservatives are becoming the most progressive. Fourth, Christians in many cases are the prime agents of their own secularization. Fifth, through its uncritical engagement with modernity, the church is becoming its own most effective gravedigger.

For the church-growth movement, what matters are the breeding grounds in which such ironies and unintended consequences multiply. Two are paramount. The first breeding ground is the more traditional one: the uncritical espousal of the ideal of "relevance" and its companion church-growth slogans, "seeker-friendly," "audience-driven," and "full-service churches."

As stated earlier, relevance is a prerequisite for communication. Without it, there is no communication, only a one-sided sending of messages addressed to no one, nowhere. But having said that, it must also be said that relevance is a more complex, troublesome, and seductive matter than its advocates acknowledge. For a start, relevance is a question-begging concept when invoked by itself. And when absolutized, it becomes lethal to truth. Properly speaking, relevance assumes and requires the answer to such questions as: Relevance for what? Relevant to whom?

If these questions are left unasked, a constant appeal to relevance becomes a way of riding roughshod over truth and coralling opinion coercively. People are thinking or doing something simply "because it is relevant" without knowing why. But it is in fact truth that gives relevance to "relevance," just as "relevance" becomes irrelevance if it is not related to truth. Without truth, relevance is meaningless and dangerous.

In addition, relevance has a false allure that masks both its built-in transience and its catch-22 demand. Dean Inge captured the transience in his celebrated line "He who marries the spirit of the age soon becomes a widower." But it was Simone Weil who highlighted the catch-22: "To be always relevant, you have to say things which are eternal."

For many evangelicals, relevance as the road to irrelevance is still tomorrow's problem rather than today's. But the fate of liberalism should give evangelicals occasion to pause. Evangelicals would do well to ponder the enigma of relevance more deeply. One lesson from the "road to Rome" or the "Canterbury trail" is that there is an advantage to the "irrelevance" of being transcultural and transhistorical. Precisely because the church crosses cultures and generations, G.K. Chesterton could even boast that the church is "the only thing which saves a man from being the degraded child of his own age."11 There is thus an irrelevance to the pursuit of relevance as well as a relevance to the practice of irrelevance.

The second, and more modern, breeding ground for irony is the church-growth movement's uncritical elevation of modern notions of "need." The mega-churches' entire law, as one proponent puts it, is summed up in their two great commandments: "Find a need and meet it, find a hurt and heal it."

At first sight, a ministry based on meeting needs is surely unobjectionable. After all, its ultimate sanction is the saying of Jesus: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31-32).

Yet people who use the need-meeting approach overlook certain things. First, this approach has no matching emphasis in truth, and leaves the church carelessly vulnerable to intellectual dismissal. The heirs of Ludwig Feuerbach and Sigmund Freud, for instance, attack the church by charging that "the fundamental dogmas of Christianity are fulfilled wishes of the heart" which is in fact a fair description of much modern evangelical believing.

Second, meeting needs does not always satisfy needs; it often stokes further ones and raises the pressure of eventual disillusionment. As Immanuel Kant said to a Russian historian Karamzin, "Give a man everything he desires and yet at this very moment he will feel that everything is not everything."

Third, and even more important, modernity has expanded and corrupted the very notion of need by creating a "need on command" society. Needs, consumerism, and professionalism are the three pillars of our modern service society. To be need-less is to be less than human. As Tony Walters points out, modern consumer society is built on a grand reversal of the Beatles' song: "All you love is need."

Strikingly, the new status of "need" simultaneously elevates a new generation of expects-because of their authority to describe and prescribe and debases true needs. Thus, need, subject to consumer fashion, becomes shallow, plastic, and manipulable. Needs induced by advertising slogans are often merely wants; as such, they become commodities that are purchased on command through expert prescription. Yet here is the irony: Endlessly engineered and marketed, an obsession with perceived needs results in consumer indifference to specific, genuine, real needs. People skilled in learning to need the "needs" that the professional elites identify become deaf to their own true needs - their needs as God, not the world, defines them.

In short, the exaggerated half-truth about the church's "needing to meet needs" once again breeds unintended consequences. Just as church-growth's modern passion for "relevance" will become its road to irrelevance, so its modern passion for "felt needs" may turn the church into an echo chamber of fashionable needs that drown out the One voice that addresses real human need below all felt needs.

Six Main Carriers

The sixth reminder deals with the people who are likely to become the source of the church's problem, because of church growth's uncritical engagement with modernity.

The term "carrier" is often used of modernization, borrowed from the medical field to express the development equivalent of a carrier of disease. Usually the reference is to impersonal, structural forces-such as urbanization, the spread of the market economy, bureaucratization, and so on. But it is useful to remember that modernity is also "carried" by certain character types-in other words, by people whose jobs and skills are the epitome of different parts of the modernization process.

There are six main carriers, or character types, of modernity. One or two others might be added. But not only are they close to the essence of modernity; they are very close to some of us, a recognition that can be disturbing.

First is the pundit, the one for whom "everything can be known, everything can be pronounced upon," centered professionally on the importance of information. Second is the engineer, the one for whom "everything can be designed, everything can be produced," centered professionally on production. (You want to market a perfume, land a man on the moon, plant a new church? The engineer will figure it out.) Third is the marketer, the one for whom "everything can be positioned, everything can be sold," centered professionally on consumer satisfaction. Fourth is the consultant, the one for whom "everything can be better organized, everything can be better delivered," centered professionally on management. Fifth is the therapist, the one for whom "everything can be gotten in touch with, everything can be adjusted or healed," centered professionally on healing. Sixth is the impresario, the one for whom "everything can be conveyed to advantage through the presentation of images regardless of any reality," centered professionally on public relations and "impression management."

Doubtless several of these carriers come close to many of us and all of them merit deeper discussion. I will expand only on the pundit partly because of the pundit's importance in the proliferation of church-growth gurus and management consultants.

Modernity breeds pundits; indeed it turns modern society into a punditocracy based on the ruling assumption that everything can be known, everything can be pronounced upon. Many factors contribute to the pundit's appeal. The arrival of the knowledge society, the rising status of information and data, the triumph of the New Class, the importance of "ideas brokers" and the "culture wars" (America now has more than a thousand think tanks), the rise of professional, credentialed experts, and the introduction of an entertainment dynamic in thinking (so that we now have gurus-in-residence and intellectual celebrities with a passion to perform). Two other elements that favor the pundit are the rise of short-attention discourse (promoted by television's incredibly shrinking sound bite) and the hunger for meaning and belonging with its attendant growth of prophecy and future-hype.

Put all these factors together and the rise of the pundit becomes natural, and even necessary. Nor does it take much thought to see its influence. Take the example of the role of pundits on such political talk shows as "Crossfire," "The Capital Gang," and "The McLaughlin Group." The features of such shows are well known: the trivializing of issues, the soundbite reasoning, the contrived aggression, the locker room machoism, the off-camera celebrity pimping for corporations, and the considerable hypocrisy-the same men (yes, men and not women) who expect to be taken seriously when they write in newspapers do not expect to be taken seriously when they josh around on the talk shows. Yet their pundit power to set agendas is enormous. Informed opinion in America has become the replay of yesterday's talk show.

Needless to say, Christian pundits are somewhat different in both subject matter and style. But the differences are less than one should expect and not as important as the less obvious similarities. Two problems commonly develop. First, over-reliance on pundits - or on any of the other carriers - leads Christians toward dependency on professionalism and expertise.

While Christian ministry is the prototype of the profession, and such traditional professions as law and medicine were openly altruistic as a reflection of their origin, modern professionalism has a different goal and a different outcome.

Professionalism embodies the power to prescribe. Today it is the key to determining need, defining clients, delivering solutions and deepening dependency-whether in healing identity, rebuilding inner cities, or planting churches among baby boomers.

The result, however, is not necessarily greater freedom and responsibility for ordinary people, because the dominance of the expert means the dependency of the client. All that has changed is the type of authority. Traditional authorities, such as the clergy, have been replaced by modern authorities-in this case, denominational leaders by church-growth experts. The outcome is what Christopher Lasch calls "paternalism without a father" and Ivan Illich "the age of disabling professions."12

The suggestion is that "the expert knows best," so "we can do better." But the "ministry of all believers" recedes once again. Even the dream of the "self-help" movement disguises the gold rush of experts in its wake. In most cases, all that has changed is the type of clergy. "The old priesthood is dead! Long live the new power-pastors and pundit-priests!"

Second, over-reliance on pundits leads Christians toward disregard for the specifically Christian content of the expertise. In the case of the Christian pundit, for example, a dazzling grasp of modern data and information often obscures a striking blind spot-his or her lack of attention to matters of wisdom, responsibility, and character, which far outweigh the importance of information in Scripture.

More seriously still, uncritical adulation of the Christian pundit runs the risk of opening the doors to modern varieties of false prophets. Jeremiah, you will remember, distinguished the false from the true with his searching question: "But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word?" (Jeremiah 23:18). I read Jeremiah's question and can only say, "Have I? Have we?" That divine source alone divides true Christian speaking from false. Without it, all prophecy is false, all punditry shallow-the mere chatter of recycled opinions and retailed personal fancies.


The challenge of modern church growth is the problem of modern discipleship writ large-how to engage in the world freely but faithfully. Clearly, a tough blend of attributes is required: integrity and effectiveness, enterprise with humility, spiritual devotion along with common sense. To that end, here are two concluding reminders and two cautions to ponder.

The first reminder concerns the paradox surrounding change and relevance. On the one hand, no one and nothing stays the same unless it is willing to change. On the other hand, no one and nothing becomes truly timely unless it is in touch with the eternal. The second reminder concerns the paradox surrounding success. On the one hand, in matters of the spirit, nothing fails like success. On the other hand, in matters of the spirit, nothing succeeds like failure.

The first caution to ponder is historical. In the early 1980s when the Christian Right was the dominant trend, criticism of the movement was often treated as treason. Today, when the trail of its debris-strewn illusions is all too obvious, many former enthusiasts wonder why they did not recognize the movement's shortcomings earlier. Could it be that the church-growth movement in its present expansionist phase is also a movement waiting to be undeceived? It would be wise to raise our questions now.

The second caution to ponder is theological. If modernity is history's greatest reinforcement of the idol-making factory that is our hearts, nothing can resist it short of the truth of radical monotheism: "There is one God, no god but God, and no rest for any people who have any god but God." Only an impossible God, revealing impossible truths and making impossible demands, can call out an impossible people adequate for this challenge.

For all who are committed to church growth and eager to use the best of modernity, it is sobering to realize the lengths of God's iconoclasm. As the Scriptures show, God is not only against the idolizing of alien gods, God is against His own gifts when idolized. The fate of the tabernacle and the temple are both a warning to mega-churches built not on rock but sand.

We should therefore remember Peter Berger's contemporary warning: "He who sups with the devil of modernity had better have a long spoon." By all means dine freely at the table of modernity, but in God's name keep your spoons long. We should also remember Origen's ancient principle: Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to set up a golden calf. By all means plunder freely of the treasures of modernity, but in God's name make sure that what comes out of the fire that will test our life's endeavors is gold fit for the temple of God and not a late-twentieth-century image of a golden calf.



1. See C. Peter Wagner, Your Church Can Grow (Glendale, Calif.: Regal, 1976), chapter 1.

2. Leith Anderson, Dying for Change (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1990), p. 17.

3. C. S. Lewis, George Macdonald: An Anthology (London: Geoffrey HIes, 1946), p. 27.

4. Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Anchor, 1970), p.22.

5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/The Anti-Christ (London: Penguin, 1968), p. 21.

6. Michelle Bearden, Publishers Weekly, 10 February 1991, p. 42.

7. As quoted in Arthur Unger, "Born Again Phenomenon," Christian Science Monitor 13 July 1977; American Demographics, August 1988, p. 57.

8. Phillip Rieff, The Feeling Intellect (Chicago: U. of Chicago), p. 280.

9. As quoted in Lears, No Place of Grace, p. 24.

10. As quoted in Context, 15 Apri11991, p. 4.

11. Robert Kniller, As I Was Saying: A Chesterton Reader (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p.272.

12. See Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner, 1979) and Ivan Illich, Disabling Professions (London: Marion Boyars, 1977).