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GUEST POST: Reassess the Church Growth Movement

Karl Vaters works hard to be fair minded in giving his accurate assessment of the Church Growth Movement (CGM). He knows it well, and I believe it's own proponents and practitioners would appreciate his descriptions.

Undoubtedly, they will disagree with his disagreements, but he is not backing down. He believes in de-sizing the church. Which does not mean he is a proponent of small churches, but he believes a fundamental issue about the church growth movement has reshaped the church in the last 50 years. We are looking again at his new book, De-Sizing the Church: How Church Growth Became a Science, Then an Obsession, and What’s Next.


Photo by Al Elmes on Unsplash

In a later chapter, Vaters discusses three phases through which the church has gone through in his life. These resonated with me. The three are revivalism of the 50s-70s, strategizing at the end of the 20th century, and social activism – the rest of this paragraph is all mine – which formed into antagonistic poles from the days of Ronald Reagan on. Progressives sometimes complain that conservatives are overly politicized. But conservatives complained about progressives being involved in political activism well before the days of Ronald Reagan. A new book, which I have not read or seen, argues that Christian nationalism is a reaction to the progressivism of Protestant mainline churches. I believe there is enough blame to go in both directions.

The church growth movement, as practiced, emerged in his “strategizing” phase of the late 20th Century. The author does not say this but the church growth movement is incompatible with the activism phases at work in the church today.

I want to sketch in my own terms briefly where he thinks the church growth movement went sideways. Then we will turn to what he thinks is critical to develop if the church is going to right its course.

To begin with, the fundamental movement sideways was measuring success on the basis of numbers. The bigger the number, the more successful. Furthermore, from the business world discussions of strategy, mission statements, and vision statements entered the church through the church growth movement’s major practitioners. Increasingly, fewer and fewer pastors had theological and biblical expertise and became entrepreneurs and leaders who could fill the seats.

Another fundamental problem that the author finds in the church growth movement was an obsession with methodology, which is the current vogue term for method. Pushing back against old fashioned stale methods led to preoccupation with better methods, which tail began to wag the dog. In other words, get the right method and the right results will follow.

One element of the church growth movement, but by this I mean especially the megachurches that I have been connected to, experienced, read about, or heard about, was what the author calls “toxic positivity.” Negative talk about anything seems to be verboten. Which was one of the reasons when scandals became news that so many in many of these churches did all they could not only to silence the critics but to preserve the reputation of the church. A church that does not recognize the importance of confession and honesty may give way to a positivity that prevents confession when confession is needed.

Of course, we have all recognized that the church growth movement, as it was going sideways, and this sideways action was often done by specific practitioners of the church growth movement’s ideas, was to platform pastors with proven success when success was measured by numbers. So conferences developed at megachurches to reveal to wannabe megachurch pastors how they did the job.

Vaters is aware of the significance of the suburban nature of the church growth movement. He is also aware that the suburban nature of these churches led to ethnocentrism and what I want to call “econo-centrism.” The sideways movement of the church growth movement was planted in suburbs and flourished for only a certain demographic. [SMcK: White folks, middle and upper class. Which is also why that demographic was fertile for a specific kind of political partisanship.]

My experience with pastors in the United States is that the church growth movement, combined as it was with these massive conferences at mostly suburban megachurches, diminished small churches, degraded small church pastors, and led to arrogance on the one side and shame on the other. A number of pastors have told me they quit attending the conferences because they knew in their community the ideas could never be implemented. They were looking for conferences by pastors who pastored people, regardless of the size of the church.

Vaters pleads for “integrity as the new competence.” Integrity, of course, is not really a new version of competence but the alternative, which leads to an entirely different church and culture. He compares the Bigness-Integrity Gap alone these categories.

Bigness: efficiency, leadership, success, hustle, increase, growth, excitement, effectiveness, passion.

Integrity, and here he punts to the fruit of the Spirit, which all OK by me: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

For me, bigness measures numbers with reproducible methods while integrity points at Christoformity. Here’s how Vaters describes integrity:

We need to: 1. Do the right thing, 2. Every time, 3. For a long time, 4. With no agenda.

That’s wise. That’s virtue ethics in a simple formula; his idea of integrity is about character and culture formation.



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