One of the most stimulating books I have been reading in recent weeks has been “Evangelism after Christendom” by Bryan Stone. The following is a sample of quotes from his chapter on “Context and Conversion” which builds up to a devastating critique of the church growth movement, and which has more than a few implications for the emerging / missional church conversation as well:
It is now commonplace to note the fact that the Christendom framework within which the church has operated for hundreds of years has been steadily disintergrating for some time. Despite this fact, it is still possible to operate out of Christendom assumptions and towards Christendom aims – especially in the practice of evangelism and even by those abandoning a “stained-glass culture” in their worship, preaching and architecture. The most seductive of these assumptions remains the simple but ubiquitous identification of evangelism with the quantitative growth of the church.
Now, of course it is easy to cast stones at “other churches”, but what I would invite you to do here though is to take this as an opportunity for self reflection.
And though within Protestantism evangelical churches have clearly been more successful than mainline churches in achieving church growth over the last half-century, that does not make the assumption any less universal in both camps.
Again, wherever you sit on the conservative / liberal spectrum, I would invite you to critique your own camp first.
[Growth] may in some cases be a negative indication, for even cancer may be characterized by negative growth. It is quite possible to practice idolatry and to grow as a church at the same time. Likewise the proliferation and growth of churches that perpetuate the social divides can hardly be characterized as an extension of the mission Dei.
Stone here touches on my growing unease with the Homogenous Unit Principle and the way “contextualized church” can often devolved into nothing more than a synonym for homogenous churches with a post-modern flavour for people who don’t fit homogenous churches with a modern flavour, where in either case heterogenous church remains untried. Why, because hetrogenous churches are slower to grow.
Of course, we are also not justified in concluding that church decline or stagnation is a sign of the church’s fidelity to the gospel!”
The point being that neither growth nor decline, by themselves, indicate anything.
If the identification of evangelism with church growth is premised upon a faulty practical logic, so also are the conclusions that flow from that logic. When the mission of the church becomes a mission of numerical growth, quantitative influence, and geographical spread, evangelism is easily reduced to whatever means, method or gimmick will facilitate that mission. Conversion then becomes a lowest common denominator decision or experience that will allow a church, without too much embarrassment, to claim an individual as its own
This is not to say that unnecessary barriers to communication should not be bridged or that creative communication has no place, but we need to leave space for people to reject our message, we should not shy away from the more challenging aspects of the evangelistic task in efforts to seem more tollerant.
At the same time, if we reject quantitative measures such as numerical growth or geographical spread as legitimate indicators of evangelistic “success,” we may well ask whether there are other measures by which the practice may still be held accountable.
Deconstruction over now, how do we move forward?
One way of answering the question of evaluation and accountability … is to distinguish between evangelistic “reach” and “spread”.
We cannot just the faithfulness of our witness by measuring the extent to which it is accepted or rejected; we can, however, judge our faithfulness by measuring the catholicity of our invitation – that is, whether it is offered to all or only to some.
I think this final point is rather significant. Has the emerging / missional church invitation proved any more broader in its invitation than the established church?