There is a paradigm that has been shaping your church that needs to change.

Since 1950 the dominant paradigm shaping the Christian Church has been labelled “church growth” and is best captured by author Donald McGavran in his early 1970’s book Understanding Church Growth.

Most of us who have grown up in the church assume that this way of doing things is how things are meant to be, however there are three major challenges with the church growth paradigm that has shaped us for the last 60 years.

First is the notion that, if you aren’t a pastor or involved in evangelism, you can express your faith only by being a faithful church member. As Mark Greene wrote, “Ninety-five percent of Christians are neither envisioned or equipped for mission in 95 percent of their waking lives.”[1] This exacerbates what has come to be called the “sacred-secular divide”.[2]

Mark Greene, in his 2010 monograph The Great Divide, quotes one teacher as saying, “I spend an hour a week teaching Sunday school and they haul me up in front of the church to pray for me. The rest of the week I’m a full-time teacher and the church has never prayed for me. That says it all.”[3]

The second major challenge is the basic idea that people do best in groups of people who are like themselves. This was core to McGavran’s work.

This focus raises two questions, one practical and one theological. The practical challenge is that often the second generation of a church adopts a different cultural identity from the previous generation. When a church so clearly conforms to the social mores of one generation, it almost necessarily follows that the next generation will not find a home in that same church. This is most obviously seen in ethnically focused churches in a Western context (e.g., Chinese or Vietnamese Alliance churches), but is actually a dynamic at play in most churches.

The theological question is, how does a church that perpetuates societal division model the Kingdom of God? A continual theme in Paul’s writings was the importance of unity. His assertion that Jesus’ “purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,”[4] and that the church should be a display of “the manifold wisdom of God,”[5] seems to be in direct opposition to a socially segmented church. In fact Jesus’ own assertion that “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,”[6] seems to emphasize the idea that the nature of the relationships in the church should be so visibly different from what is normal in culture that the relationships themselves would be the main apologetic for Him. McGavran’s template for homogenous socio-economic churches may represent effective sociological strategy, but a case can be made that a church shaped by the dominant culture is less able to stand as an effective model of the Kingdom of God in contrast to that culture.

The third issue of the Church Growth paradigm is the focus on numbers. Elements of the church that were harder to measure, such as spiritual growth, became less of a focus. The result of this shift in emphasis was revealed by a leader of the church growth movement, Bill Hybels, when he announced the findings of the Reveal survey[7] indicating many of their congregants’ spiritual lives had “stalled,” and that this was an issue in many other churches across America.

One of the unintended consequences of a strong emphasis on growing churches in homogenous social settings has been a reduced emphasis on the growth of the people in those churches.

Overall, the strong focus on growing the church seems to run counter to Jesus’s instruction to “seek first the Kingdom of God”[8] and his assertion to Peter[9] that he, and not the church, would build the church.”

Reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of the McGavran era, it seems clear that in the next epoch in the life of the church, Jesus will be leading us towards:

  • A model of church that is shaped by “Kingdom” values and culture and thereby stands in stark relief to the dominant societal culture
  • A model of church that allows room for every member to find ministry
  • A model of church that invites and equips every member to experience the deeper life with Christ

[1] Mark Greene, The Great Divide (LICC 2010), 6

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ephesians 2:15 NIV

[5] Ephesians 3:10 NIV

[6] John 13:35 NIV

[7] Matt Branaugh, “Willow Creek’s ‘Huge Shift, ” Christianity Today (May 15, 2008) Cited 3 December 2015. Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html

[8] Matt 6:33

[9] Matt 16:18

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