rethink church (2)

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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GUEST POST: Rethink Sanctuary

GUEST POST: Rethink Sanctuary


By Mike Glenn


In ancient times, church buildings were sacred places. If you needed any kind of help, you would go to the sanctuary and someone would give you food or water…whatever you needed.  If someone was after you, you could hide inside the church and no one could harm you as long as you were in the church building. A few years ago, several churches resurrected this doctrine to protect illegal immigrants – especially mothers with children– to hide them from authorities who would have arrested and deported them. There is a space where no one in the world can get to you. We call it “sanctuary.” 

Our digital age has changed our understanding of space. We can work from anywhere. We can connect from anywhere. We can do anything from anywhere which means anything can be done to us anywhere.


We aren’t safe anymore, anywhere. Not only do we have to worry about hackers stealing our personal and private information, we have to worry about being caught in a social media frenzy through no fault of our own because someone posted a picture or used us in a meme, all without our permission.


We’ve learned to live very guarded lives. We’ve learned to be aware of who’s using a camera on their phone, to be suspicious if anyone is taping our conversations. These days, everyone has a cell phone.


When in public, you have to assume everything is either being recorded or videoed. How many politicians, athletes and corporate executives have been caught in compromising situations because someone had a cell phone? How many adolescents have had their lives ruined because something about them got out on the internet?


The obvious thing is to always be aware that everyone has a phone these days and to act accordingly. But it’s not that easy. In our world of constant surveillance, we’ve lost something. We’ve lost trust in each other. We’re worried about what the other party will do with the information we’ve just given them. Does everything I say to you end up on social media? Will I find myself unknowingly quoted on X, or Instagram, or Tick Tock?


What’s more, we’re beginning to understand no one actually lives the way they say they do in their social media. Imagine that…people lie on social media. The consequences of this constant state of pretending is we’re slowly losing our true selves. Too many of us become our pretend selves, our public selves and we’ve lost our true identities because we can’t find a safe place. 


And where is a safe place?


In Corinthians, Paul reminds the early church they are the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. They are to be careful about the places they go and what they do because wherever they go, they take the Spirit of Christ with them. It also means, we as believers take the sanctuary of Christ with us wherever we go. That means, when people show up in our lives, we do what we can to help. It also means that when someone, anybody, is in our lives, no one can hurt them. They are safe with us. We will give our lives to protect them. 


Sadly, churches and Christians have lost the presumption that people are safe with us. The sexual scandals and abuse stories that have broken across the whole spectrum of churches have resulted in people thinking churches and Christians are to be avoided rather than sought out. Christians are seen as self-righteous and judgmental. It breaks my heart to know we have earned these criticisms. 


But what if, as Christ-followers, we began to rethink the concept of sanctuary? What if, taking the teaching of Paul seriously, we began to understand that we, as Spirit bearers, are the sanctuaries, the safe places, of our communities and neighborhoods? What if the word got out that people were safe with us? When they were with us, no one would judge them, no one would harm them, and no one would condemn them. 


People could come to us and be themselves. We would listen, really listen, not just wait to talk. Our friends would know we’ve heard them and we know them. And we would love them. 


No, I’m not talking about a superficial “just love everybody” bumper sticker philosophy. I’m talking about a love strong enough to bear the cross for the beloved. To love a person through all the heartbreak, confusion and darkness that are part of all our lives. To be there, like a lighthouse, that doesn’t move and remind our friends every day, we’re still here. God is still here. We are bearers of His presence. 


And the world is safe with us. You can lay your burdens down and sort through them. You can face your pain and not be overwhelmed in the process. Sure, we’ll tell you the truth. True love demands that kind of honesty, but we won’t beat you to death with it. We’ll find a way forward.


More than that, with the help of Christ, we can find a better way. Jesus promised that. 


These days, everyone is looking for a safe place. We shouldn’t be that hard to find. Every Christ follower is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Every believer is a safe place. Every Christian is a sanctuary.




© 2024 Scot McKnight, 548 Market Street PMB 72296, San Francisco, CA 94104


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