Church Growth Failure

February 4, 2008

Some of you may remember the Church Growth Movement of the sixties and seventies. Great leaders such as Donald McGavran and Win Arn led the movement and soon every church in town was running programs like Bring a Friend Sunday and doing follow-up with visitors. Every time you turned around, there was a new program to use in the church that promised to bring the visitors in droves.

It almost worked too. Churches that chose to seriously use these programs almost always saw growth. Many, many churches doubled their attendance, and some did even better. Many church consultants got their start during this period as well. A church would call in a consultant, they’d fly in with their briefcases and do all sorts of assessments, and then make serious recommendations about restructuring the board, adding a new worship service, and adding the latest and greatest programs to energize the congregation. Then they’d fly out and the church would grow. They almost always grew after a consultation, just like they almost always grew after a new church growth program got started. But if you went back to those churches eighteen months or two years later, the vast majority of them were back down to their original size or less. Something didn’t work out and the Church Growth Movement got the blame.

It’s not that McGavran, Arn, the consultants, and all those programs got it wrong. They didn’t. They were all essentially correct in how to grow a church. The problem was that the Church Growth Movement made a bad assumption. They assumed that the local congregation had a rock-solid spiritual foundation. They assumed the church leaders approached not only the church, but life itself, with prayer. They assumed every decision made in the church was weighed in the balance of faith, not in the scales of logic and dollars. They assumed the church leaders were modeling their faith; that they were personally committed and involved in reaching the unchurched for Jesus; that they were mentoring others to be committed followers of Jesus, not just giving them intellectual massages. Like I said … they assumed wrong. The fact is, many of our North American churches are (and were) spiritually bankrupt. And all those people who “joined” the church from the new programs, one day woke up and realized that the congregation was in as bad of shape spiritually as they were. They’d come looking for God and discovered they’d only found the church.

We’ve learned a lot since then. We now know that before a church can experience growth that lasts, they have to rebuild their spiritual foundation. The pastor has to be a model of spiritual depth, not just in their talk, but in their day-to-day walk. And every church leader, every one of them from the chair of the elders to the janitor, from the Sunday School teachers to the associate pastors have to be practicing, faithful disciples of Jesus who spend more time praying than they talk about praying, and spend more time with the unchurched than they do with the churched. It’s a new paradigm for a new world and if we’re going to change that world for the sake of the Kingdom, we’ve got to start with the foundation.


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