The Church Growth Movement

Scott Williquette

This article appeared at a time when the Church Growth Movement was much more talked of than it is today. We republish it here because the insight displayed shows how a discerner looks at modern church movements. We would that all believers would be discerning and cautious about running after some new thing.

In Southern California, seismologists are interested in measuring the slightest drift of geological plates. The movement of these tectonic plates along fault lines causes earthquakes and will some day cause the “big one” as the coastal plate slides north along the continental shelf from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Consequently, seismologists at Cal Tech and the U.S. Geological Survey have installed sensitive laser instruments along the San Andreas (and other) fault lines to measure even the slightest movement. Detecting the slightest movement is costly and difficult, but it is essential because the welfare of millions of people is at stake.

Being able to detect theological drift, no matter how slight, is no less important. The eternal welfare of millions is at stake. Over the past 15 years or so, a shift has occurred in the evangelical landscape regarding the doctrine of the church. In an attempt to reach more people, churches have evolved from keepers and proclaimers of the truth to emporiums of entertainment. Instead of focusing on making disciples and presenting people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, churches are focusing on getting the unchurched to attend church. These churches use marketing techniques and determine what people want and do not want in a church. They then give people what they want, and attendance grows rapidly. The unsaved are offended by the clear exposition of the Bible and the dogmatic teaching of doctrine, so these churches give them a concert, a comedian, or a brief, encouraging sermon sprinkled with pop psychology.

In her article “God For Sale” in the Los Angeles Magazine, Kathlene Neumeyer insightfully wrote, “It is no surprise that when today’s affluent young professionals return to church, they want to do it only on their own terms—what’s amazing is how far churches are going to oblige.”[1] This aberrant movement within evangelicalism goes by many names: church growth, marketing the church, user-friendly church. The premise of this movement is simply this—if you are going to reach people, you must give them what they want. George Barna, one of the proponents of this movement, says, “My contention, based upon careful study of data and the activities of American churches, is the number one problem plaguing the Church is its failure to embrace a marketing orientation in what has become a market-driven environment.”[2] In other words, since successful businesses place on the market only that which people want, the church must as well. This may seem well and good to Barna and others with a marketing orientation, but God’s way of reaching man is opposed to the ways of human logic.

Contrary to Human Logic, God Targets Everyone to Hear the Gospel

Human logic drives a marketing approach to ministry. Such an approach dictates that if a church wants to grow, it must select target groups it desires to reach and then tailor its ministry to those groups. Rather than attempting to reach every group, it must focus on only a few.

Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Church, said it this way: “Generally a pastor can define his appropriate target audience by determining with whom he would like to spend a vacation or an afternoon of recreation.”[3] This ministry philosophy is absolutely contrary to that of the New Testament writers. Regarding his evangelistic ministry, the apostle Paul wrote, “I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise” (Rom. 1:14). Speaking of Christian ministry, James says that we are not to show favoritism (2:1). Marketing logic may dictate a target approach to evangelism, but God’s Word commands a “shotgun” approach.

Contrary to Human Logic, God Does Not Make the Christian Message Easy

In his book Marketing the Church, Barna writes, “Marketing is the process by which you seek to apply your product to the desires of the target population.”[4] Later in that same book he says, “This is what marketing the church is all about: providing our product (relationships) as a solution to people’s felt needs.”[5] Is that what God commands us to do? Has God commissioned us to survey the community, determine people’s desires and felt needs, and minister to them on that level? No! We are commissioned to give the gospel to a lost and dying world. No matter what desires and felt needs people have, the solution is the same—Jesus Christ.

The Christian message should not be diluted to gain a following (John 6:53–66; Matt. 19:16–21). The gospel is not what people want; it is what they need. What people want is the stroking of their egos and the soothing of their guilt. What people want is an “I’m okay; you’re okay” message. We cannot give them that. We must confront people about their sin and give them the gospel. People are not okay, and if we care for them we cannot let them think that they are.

Christian commitment should not be minimized to keep a following (Rom. 12:1–2; Gal. 5:16–26; Eph. 4:1–3; Col. 3:1–14; Matt. 28:18–20). Many people are willing to be involved casually in worship, but real worship exacts a price of commitment that is altogether different. Real worship involves not just personal involvement, but personal sacrifice. It involves giving your life. “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies [your selves] a living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1). Genuine Christianity is commitment. Salvation involves a life-changing and committed faith in Christ. Christian growth involves an evergrowing commitment to personal holiness. Worship involves a humble commitment to bask joyously in the greatness and goodness of God.

Contrary to Human Logic, God Uses the Dogmatic Proclamation of Truth to Further His Goals

God uses the preaching of His Word, not depravity-driven myths (2 Tim. 4:1–4). The overriding command of this passage is “preach the Word.” The word “preach” was commonly used to refer to a herald making a public proclamation on behalf of another. That is exactly how Paul used it here. He commands Timothy to proclaim publicly the Word of God. He is not to proclaim his own message, but the message of God as found in His written revelation. Preachers have no right to teach their own opinions or even the opinions of others. They are commanded to teach God’s message. Much of what is called “preaching” today is nothing of the sort. Genuine preaching is the passionate explanation and application of God’s revelation.

This phrase “itching ears” is a figure of speech for “curiosity.” It refers to the search for something new, something spectacular. It’s clear from this context that this is a curiosity on the part of the hearers that is never satisfied. It involves an all-consuming and never-ending hunger for the new and the novel. According to Paul, this hunger for the new and the novel does not flow from the Holy Spirit. Paul states that this desire for novelty is “after their own lusts” (2 Tim. 4:3). It flows from man’s depravity. In other words, these believers have made themselves the measure of who should teach them and what teaching is acceptable. The desires of the people, not the teachings and doctrines of the Word of God, are the controlling factor.

Man’s hunger for novelty will drive him to exchange truth for error. The truth of God’s Word will be disregarded, openly rejected, and exchanged for myths (4:3–4). In his book Selling Jesus, What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church, Douglas Webster provides a helpful summary of what churches are doing to attract the baby boomers.

The baby boomer wants a warm, supportive, informal and positive atmosphere. Anything that distracts from this will be an instant turnoff, while anything that’s done to make the atmosphere nonthreatening improves effectiveness. Sermons are short, simple, uplifting and personally inspiring. Topics are carefully selected to stress the personal over the doctrinal and the relational over the abstract. Sin and money are seldom mentioned. Entertaining features like drama, skits, and lively music generate enthusiasm and excitement.[6]

Can depraved man be reached using purely human methods? No! God uses the preaching of His Word, not persuasive tactics (1 Cor. 2:1–5). Is Paul saying in these verses that he is an unwise man, incapable of communicating in a wise fashion? Is he saying that his preaching is not meant to persuade people to trust Christ? No. What he is saying is that he does not preach the gospel in the power of his own persuasive skills. When he preaches, the primary persuader is the Holy Spirit. Paul is saying in essence, “I did not come to you utilizing persuasive tactics, but desiring the Spirit to show His power.”

Charles Spurgeon once said, “The power that is in the gospel does not lie in the eloquence of the preacher, otherwise men would be converters of souls; nor does it lie in the preacher’s learning, otherwise it would consist in the wisdom of men. We might preach until our tongues rotted, till we would exhaust our lungs and die, but never a soul would be converted unless the Holy Spirit be with the Word of God to give it the power to convert the soul.”

The doctrine of the church must be guarded. We cannot give in to the temptation to dilute the gospel of Christ or diminish the importance of Christian commitment in order to see attendance grow. Our job as fundamental Baptist churches is not to grow at any cost, but to obey God by evangelizing and making disciples in a way that honors Him. We should not compromise the gospel or water down Christian truth just to be attractive to a fallen world. We should be faithful to our commission and trust God for the increase in His time. May we be faithful stewards and messengers of God’s truth.

Scott Williquette is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Rockford, Illinois.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. February 1989, p. 174. []
  2. Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), p. 23. []
  3. Quoted by Douglas Webster, Selling Jesus, What’s Wrong with Marketing the Church (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), p. 58. []
  4. Barna, p. 23. []
  5. Ibid., p. 51. []
  6. Webster, p. 75. []