The Fatal Flaw of the Church Growth Movement

Do you want your church to growth numerically?

Most pastors and the people in their pews would answer, “yes!” Most genuine Christians want to see more people reached with the gospel. If more people get saved, then they need a place to go! If they come to your church, it will grow numerically.

Consequently, the good desire to see churches reach more people for Christ gave birth to the “church growth movement” lead by Donald McGavran. The church growth movement looked at ways for existing or new churches to increase their numbers. Oftentimes a combination of surveys, data analysis and marketing techniques were employed by churches in the movement to gain a better understanding of how to reach their communities. In many ways, the church growth movement gave rise to the megachurch movement and the “seeker-sensitive” movement where churches try to make church as attractive as possible to unbelievers.

The church growth movement is not all bad. In fact, many part of it are very helpful, especially for pastors who naturally focus on theology and preaching. It has a definite evangelism focus which is crucial for faithful gospel ministry.

But it has has a fatal flaw.

The fatal flaw of the church growth movement is exemplified in the (otherwise good) book called How to Break Growth Barriers by Carl F. George and Warren Bird. In the book, George and Bird put helpful emphasis on prayer when determining a church’s particular mission and purpose. Too many church leaders tell God what they’re going to do, rather than listening to God in prayer and hearing what he wants them to do.  (47).

To underscore their point, the authors relate a conversation about church growth between two pastors. One pastor, who shepherds a modestly-large church of a couple thousand in Korea, is mystified as to why his church won’t grow larger. So he asks Dr. David Yonggi Cho, pastor of the world’s largest church, what’s the difference between his church and Cho’s church. Why can’t his church grow like Cho’s church?

Cho’s answer: because he spends three hours a day in prayer while the other pastor spends only thirty minutes a day in prayer. “The difference,” Cho says, “between thirty minutes and one to three hours is the difference between three thousand and three hundred thousand” (48).

Although prayer is extremely important for pastors, here’s the fatal flow, the unbiblical assumption, of the church growth movement: the quality of the pastor’s prayer life leads to numerical growth.

Really, the flaw could be applied to any number of areas in a pastor’s ministry. Often, the quality of a pastor’s personal holiness is held up the key to church growth.  Later on, the authors profile Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago and praise his leadership abilities. According to the authors, Hybels knows how vision advances and able to effectively mobilize the church through casting vision. But Hybels is not a good guy. Apparently, the Willow Creek grew despite Hybels lack of personal holiness.

So if a pastor’s prayer life or personal holiness doesn’t grow a church, then what does? Thankfully, the Bible tells us directly! “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). God is the One who causes churches to grow. Sometimes, faithful pastors do all the “right” things and their church remains small. Sometimes, unfaithful pastors have tremendous growth in their churches. Ultimately, technique doesn’t matter to God. He gives growth in his timing and in his way.


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