Does Church Growth Equal Evangelistic Success?

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?

9 thoughts on “Does Church Growth Equal Evangelistic Success?

  1. I’m a little puzzled that anyone should identify church growth and evangelism.
    I believe that one should lead to the other — if you are evangelising and the church is not growing, then you simply aren’t making disciples. It’s a bit like the teachers who say “We taught them that but they didn’t learn it.
    I’ve also been critical of the church growth school’s application of their “homogeneous unit principle”, when it is translated as the goal of planting ethnically homogeneous churches. I think that the principle is fine if one is planning strategies for evangelism — the strategy used to reach one group may not work for another. But having reached them with the gospel, they should be brought into an inclusive Christian fellowship as far as possible. In the Orthodox experience homogeneous unit churches (and we have lots of them) don’t necessarily make for growth.
    There’s one in downtown Johannesburg that attracts a dwindling congregation of ethnic Greeks from all over the city, who eventually find travelling too much of a schlepp and go to a church closer to home, while all around the temple is a cosmopolitan megelmoes of immigrants ripe for evangelism, but the church is not trying to reach them because they aren’t Greek.

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  2. Unfortunately much church growth literature assigns an instrumental value to evangelism. Good evangelism is seen as what gets bums on seats. Unfortunately this ignores the historical links between faithfulness and rejection and indeed the linguistic links between “martyr” and “witness”. In conflating citizenship within Christendom with membership within Christianity, the architects of Christendom left us thinking non-Christians in our midst was problematic and that we should do everything possible to get people back in church. The argument of Bryan Stone is that such thinking is flawed, that we should allow space for rejection of the message and that rejection does not, in and of itself, constitute a failure of evangelism. It could equally indicate success, if indeed the message which is being rejected is the genuine gospel.
    What this suggests to me is that the true failure of our time is not that many are rejecting the gospel in the west, as disturbing as we might find that, but rather, that the widening gap between what people think they know of Christianity and what they actually know of Christianity suggests that what many are rejecting is a garbled gospel, one that they should reject. One that we should reject too. That is the true crisis in evangelism, that they have not encountered the real thing, even in churches, even when friends with Christians.

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  3. Matt,
    I take that as given.
    That was part of what “The Message to the People of South Africa” was about 40 years ago — pseudogospels in the church and in society. And thousands of years before that God said it to Ezekiel — whether they hear or whether they forbear.
    As one of the contributors to the Message said, we are not to fix up people’s salvation against their will. Our task is not to convert — that is the Holy Spirit’s work. Our task is to see that if people accept Christ they accept the true Christ and not a caricature of him, and if they reject Christ, that they reject the true Christ and not a caricature.
    That is the difference between evangelism and proselytism, and didn’t Jesus warn against those who cross land and sea to make a proselyte?

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  4. Unfortunately pseudo gospels seem to be well entrenched over here. From progressives, as Richard Niebuhr once noted, we get a gospel “of a God without wrath bringing people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” But from conservatives we get a gospel of guilt management (where the resurrection is virtually absent and social implications are externalized from conversion) or a gospel of health and wealth acquisition (which frankly, I don’t know how they reconcile with the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth) depending on which circles you travel in.
    When non-Christians reject the cargo-cult Jesus and the esoteric guilt payment Jesus on the one hand, and demote the buddy Christ to “nothing but” a good teacher on the other, I can hardly blame them. But I think it should prompt us to ask some hard questions about how we are articulating the good news. Why are western Christians so hesitant to acknowledge the resurrection as central to the good news? Why are we so hesitant to acknowledge the socially confronting implications of the resurrection, of God’s kingdom breaking into this world and God’s king reigning above the powers of this world?
    I think that deep down many Christians liked the Christendom arrangement and still seek to accommodate the powers. Political influence, financial aspiration and social acceptance is hard to give up. So the gospel is twisted to accommodate lifestyle. In the process the transformative power of the gospel is neutered, domesticated.

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  5. Dear friends,
    Obama is capturing millions of our youth into his cult like unification election efforts.
    Many of our Christian youth are decieved by Obama’s bewitching grasp into their hearts and minds. Our youth seem to be blinded by the fact that Obama’s pro-abortion and gay marriage agenda will destroy America as we know it.
    The excitement of the crowds blind and therefore seem to excuse all of Obamas socialistic anti-christian views. Is anything more dangerous upon America’s horizon than having the youth vote become the key factor which elects a man who is seeks to undermine our entire constitutional Republic? Take a close look at where the Obama support is rooted. Young, inexperienced people who are emotionally charged for causes which are not comprehended by them, or even charted by wisdom.
    Are we fully aware how the very values and principles of freedoms, which allow Christians to have rights, are now on the line? Obama can and will place left leaning judges on America’s courts just as he has promised.
    Are Christian leaders sitting around like helpless by-standers watching this happen under their noses? Are we going to relinquish our fate to political chance by going about our normal daily agenda, and simply hope these opposing forces will quietly go away? Are our liberties dying with thunderous applause as good people silently watch?
    There are other dangerous distractions dividing Christian Youth and drawing them away from unifying under true principles during a critical election year. Congregations are reporting divisions over 9 = 11 conspiracies and other popular contentions which frequently become contentious disputes regarding the Iraq war and 9 – 11.
    I am writing to you because I have long foreseen such negative trends growing within the ranks of many believers. These events are highly divisive and are becoming very dangerous.
    There have been several honest investigations recently which have exposed 9 – 11 conspiracies as dangerous and miss-leading propaganda harmful to our country. The believability for such fabrications has a bewitching affect upon the minds of many Christians as well as others. Such propaganda fuels a growing lack of trust for established principles and can turn believers against our country or against their own ministers or other good individuals who refuse to support the conspiratorial spin. The negative affects I am warning about have much to do with the fact that many christians are currently being distracted from an extremely important presidential election where leftists are contending to gain positions of power which could potentually turn our nation into an anti christian, socialistic state.
    Modern Leftists despise Christians and are currently waging a political and media war against us. These people work tirelessly to silence voices of faith in order to undermine Christian influence and set up their left leaning Babylon. As Christians are decieved into contending against Bush, Iraq, and confusion over 9 – 11 conspiracies, they unknowingly assist as true enemies ride easily into power without any resistance. I was inspired with a new understanding and seek to reveal an important message recorded in the Bible concerning 9 – 11 and the Iraq war. The Iraq war will be a major issue this year because Obama promises to pull the troops out of Iraq against the advice of our military commanders on the ground. The importance of these events are referred to in the Bible.
    Before you are tempted to write me off as another false teacher warned about in scripture, please check out my publication now marketed by a large Christian organization called Salem. Please take a few minutes and witness the online video demonstrating a biblical message about 9 – 11 and the Iraq war in prophecy. I want you to see 9 – 11 evidence recorded in your Bible.
    I want you to witness 9 – 11 scriptures which connect modern Iraq with “eagle’s wings” (America’s symbol of freedom) I am holding myself personally accountable if my readers fail to discover exactly what I am promising them concerning Iraq or 911. You have both my e-mail and my phone number to do just that!
    208-251-3519
    http://www.eternaltruth.net
    Any wise man tests before he talks”. I appeal to those who have faith in the Bible, and know God is aware of today’s crisis and believe he has inspired prophets to record spiritual solutions for these problems.
    Visit http://www.eternaltruth.net or….
    http://www.eternaltruth.net/bpo911.html

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  6. Ed, I was inclined to delete your comment as spamgelism, but what the heck, I think I’ll leave it here just for the public entertainment value. There is, just for starters, some deep ironies in the conspiratorial tone of your anti-conspirary post. Then again there are also deep ironies in your suggestion that higher participation by eligible young voters is undermining democracy. Not to mention whether the captivity of American Christianity by a right wing political party should be seen as any less compromising. And war = peacepropoganda is way too Orwellian for my tastes. If you do ever bother to come this way again I am sure we could be up for some lively discussion 🙂

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  7. I agree with Eds views because christ was a right winger who would condemn the left wingers of his day which were the Saducees manufactureing lies and snares to make Jesus look like the radical. Christ called them vipors and snakes and the harlets would go into Gods kingdom long before any of these liberals.
    This is exactly how liberals portray conservatives today without question. Christ would not be on the side of the abortionists nor the Obama’s and Ted Kennedy’s who seek to reason away christian standards as unimportant and of the simple minded. Such persons are todays evil tax collectors and saducees who seek to enslave the people as before.
    Our husbands in Iraq and our wounded vets need
    to hear about this new Bible discovery.
    Suppose it could be documented that this Bible
    prophecy was verified to have been fulfilled in our
    day predicting the war in Iraq?
    Thousands of people are entering this web sight…
    Critics have sought to rip this biblical discovery of which Ed speeks a
    part in order to disprove it.
    Such attempts continue to fail as ambitious Bible
    critics seek to expose it as another hoax.
    Critics eventually fade as the people who see
    value in this fulfilled prophecy are moved to
    inform others of this possible miracle arriving in
    our day!
    Could God have revealed an actual Bible prophecy
    supporting America going into Iraq? Everyone is
    invited to prove or disprove this newly discovered
    prophecy.
    If you can demonstrate a way to disprove this claim
    you may become a guest on Glenn Becks show or
    Shaun Hannity. If you can bring a case forward
    which supports this prophecy as being true you
    may also become a guest.
    This Bible discovery was mentioned on the Rush
    Limbaugh show as millions heard of this web sight.
    If you can find any evidence disputing this claim
    or any evidence confirming it true, please contact
    Shaun at…
    “Media track” dogtrack88hotmail.com
    Or contact Glenn Beck and make your case
    to him on line. glennbeck.com You may contact
    Rush Limbaugh if possible?
    For additional information
    concerning this matter contact
    Ed Cook at ecdistibutions or
    edmund@eternaltruth.net or 208 251 3519
    You could receive national recognition for worthy evidence
    if your information is convincing. Why?
    If no one can dispute this biblical claim this discovery
    can be submitted in the media as an actual fulfillment of
    biblical prophecy. If not, you may be the one exposing as
    a hoax.
    The new President of the united states may be determined
    by the condition of our economy and the war in Iraq.
    What could a Bible prophecy depicting America as
    the biblical eagle bringing freedom to Iraq have upon
    this presidential election?
    Could it perhaps reveal the presidential election from a new
    spiritual perspective?
    This biblical prophecy could unite our American resolve
    for supporting the Iraq war and help our troops.
    A subsidiary of Salem communications has already
    declared this work to be a monumental discovery of
    “biblical proportions” in their recent national press release.
    To confirm this national press release go to the Salem
    Xulon press release at- http://www.eternaltruth.net or enter
    their Salem web sight.
    There has been no theological criticism having any
    teeth which has demonstrated convincing red flags
    which cast doubt upon this claim. The Bible can be spun
    by people who often take things out of proper context.
    Today modern writers cleverly manufacture their own
    evidences from the Bible and years later we then discover
    such insights were false.
    This means that the specific criteria for documenting
    a fulfilled Bible prophecy is even more difficult to accomplish
    than many secular discoveries which also require high
    standards from sound research.
    We need a consensus from several credible Christians
    who can collaberate a consistency of legitamate insights
    which identify key prophetic types and shadows clearly
    identifying the cyclic nature of true prophecy within
    Bible history.
    Such an insight for understanding true Bible prophecy
    should not require a degree in theology. We welcome
    either.
    We welcome the critics who aspire to prove this wrong.
    No credable evidence has been presented showing
    any confirmed manipulation of the biblical text nor its
    context.
    Watch the you tube video as it takes you through
    specific Bible scriptures which reveal the
    great modern eagle (America)l transforming Iraq
    into a free nation in the end times..
    Locate now..
    “Bible prophecies of 9-11
    t sincerely,
    Bet Patterson
    .
    .

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  8. I have checked it out the blogs concerning the Bible prophecy concerning Iraq and 9/11 being in the Bible.
    These reports declaring this information are not just another hoax but are biblically accurate! Don’t take my word for it just check it out for yourself.
    King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon repented in chapter four and his roots were left in Iraq for a latter day blessing
    of freedom. This explains why America is succeeding in Iraq inspight of Satan imposing every ploy he could possibly muster to destroy our success there..
    Why is this never discussed by anyone else when it is plainly a huge part of Daniels prophecies? An entire
    chapter in the Bible is being ignored..
    How did this man discover this alone in the Bible and why is every one else ignoreing these prophecies?
    This is the first time anyone has ever explained Daniel chapter four to me in my whole life. Why is this?
    I have likewise seen those passages several times in the Bible and skipped over them because they made no sense to me.
    After watching the you tube video on line and following it with my Bible the lights have turned on brighter
    than the sun concerning Daniel chapter four!
    This is truly a prophecy about Iraq and also 911.
    Am I the only christian out there who ignores Daniel chapter four after being confused? I have asked the smartest
    ministers I could find and even they are stumped by Daniel chapter four. I especially liked the clip on
    the youtube about Russia representing the evil type for Babylon today. This video pre-dates the Russian
    invasion of Georga. The book reveals a warning about appeasement of dictators. Evil must be defeated and
    not ignored or appeased. This book explains how
    democrats who appease evil have made our nation
    vulnerable to Russia and Iran. Why? Because democrats
    refuse to drill for oil leaving us vulnerable
    to dangerous enemies causing them to take advantage
    of our weakness. Democrats are blaming
    America and assisting our enemies to undermine
    our moral streanth in the world. It reminds me
    of a battered women syndrome where one willingly
    takes the abuse because they have been taught to
    believe that they are the worlds problem and
    therefore deserve the abuse.. This book teaches us from Bible prophecy that this deceptive pattern must stop
    before it is too late!
    Russia surely is the kingdom of the far north
    prepareing to attack Israel and Iran is with
    them.
    Blogs out there actually under-state the power of this Bible discovery as you will soon discover. Why has
    this not yet become national news? Is Satan trying to stop this? I nearly chickened out from watching this
    video after negative feelings of pressure tried to discourage me from viewing the entire presentation.
    That negative feeling turned out to be false, had I given in to that pressure and ran away from this I
    would not have awakened to this marvelous news. My heavens, I am feeling chills down my back over an
    hour after watching this.
    All you bloggers out there please do not take offense but everything you now are discussing just
    became dwarfed by this prophetic news that far surpasses anything being talked about before..
    It is like lightening has struck and every affected christian slept through this! What ever you do in this life
    you must see this entire you tube. Brenda Paul
    See…
    Bible prophecies of 9/11
    http://www.eternaltruth.net

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  9. Given that America established its rule in Babylon (that is, Iraq) under George Bush wouldn’t it be more plausible to typecast the Republicans in the role of agents of Satan? After all they do seem to be the ones most hell bent on world domination. Then again – and here’s just a thought – maybe prophetic speculation or this sort isn’t so healthy a pastime. After all didn’t the apostles and Christ himself caution against it?
    Jesus said, “No one knows about the day or the hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when the hour will come.” (Mark 13: 32-33) Paul said, “Turn aside from godless chatter and opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:20-21)
    Maybe you should pay more head to THOSE passages within the Bible. That’s where you’ll find eternal truth. Not with this http://www.eternaltruth.net mob who’ve confused Uncle Sam with the Messiah.

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