Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lessons in the Waiting Room: Tangoing with Suffering

I am in the waiting room—that ominous place of mystery where the severe storms strike violently, and in their viciousness, conceal untold secrets. They threaten to steal my love, kill my joy, destroy my hope. Battered and broken. Torn and tattered. Whipped and weary. The storm cloud continuously morphs to mock my sorrowful soul.

My human nature is averse to suffering. I am weak. I am tired. I am fearful. I was not created to love suffering. Suffering was not a part of God’s perfect plan of creation. It informs me that there is something wrong in this world. There is something so terribly wrong that I experience pain, disease, and death. There is something so horrific that the sinless Lamb of God was nailed to two pieces of wood. Scripture labels the undefined “something” as sin. All of the pain and suffering that God has called me to endure serves as proof that the seemingly insignificant first sin in the Garden of Eden was not so insignificant after all. One sin set into motion every drop from the ocean of suffering that engulfs me. The depths and horror of suffering reveals the depths and horror of sin. I have a righteous hatred of suffering because I have a righteous hatred of sin.

And yet, suffering is inevitable. I cannot will my current suffering to disappear or any future suffering to pass any more than I can will myself to live without oxygen or food or water.

The issue is not whether we will suffer; the issue is whether Jesus Christ will be made to look great through our suffering. Prosperity theology, which teaches that our faith in God will result in physical health, material wealth, and personal success, robs us of seeing the goodness of God because it is an unbalanced view. Yes, all blessings come from God and they are to be celebrated with hearts overflowing with abundant thanksgiving! And all suffering that we endure has no power to touch us unless God allows it; He is sovereign! Moments of intense trial and hardship have the potential to reveal the goodness of God because it is in the school of suffering that God chooses to refine our character. In the midst of the storm, I enjoy a new level of intimacy with God. He reveals Himself as my Comforter, my Sustainer, my Strength, my Defender, my Fortress, my Deliverer, my Joy, my Hope, my Friend, my Redeemer, and my Abba Father. Cradling me in the palm of His hands, He invites me to savor the sweetness of His tender touch and loving embrace. He walks through the fire with me; it is not foreign to Him. I do not enter the flames alone. He is here. And He is not silent.

This is a dichotomy of universal proportions. For within me, I find a righteous hatred of suffering and a holy embracement of suffering. I serve a God who detests sin and has won the victory, and I serve a God who uses suffering—a consequence of sin—to draw me closer to Himself. God has the power to silence my suffering by uttering a single word or entertaining a brief thought. If my suffering still persists, it is not because God lacks the power. It is because He has chosen to bring me through it for His glory. And the very act that feels painful as He willingly prolongs my time in the fire is the very proof of His great love.

My circumstances change, but God remains constant. Therefore, my hope, joy, and peace are rooted in the faithfulness of my Father. “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18).

Friday, October 03, 2008

Chemical Pride

Staring at the mirror into the eyes of sin's deceitfulness, the bleak image pierces my flesh and blinds my soul's eyes. Shrinking back from the sordid sight, my soul wallows, then withers in the waves of chemical pride. The reflected image inverts and distorts until Power appears placid and person appears powerful. Chemical pride pulsates through the veins, cutting and carving its vain portrait into the soul's caverns.

O, wretched beast, once beautiful and blessing! What has become of your blessed estate?

Chemical choked cries for deliverance from death; kingdom of self disintegrates and crumbles. Beauty beheld is a balm to brokenness. The reflected image inverts and clarifies until servant submits and Righteousness reigns.

This is the Resurrection Power of the Risen Lord, saving and satisfying the repentant soul!

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Babes

He stopped what he was doing, gazed at me out of his intensely blue eyes, and in all seriousness asked, “Does he worship God or Satan?” Apparently my six year old nephew had overheard me speaking about someone who had not yet surrendered his life to Christ. Concerned for the soul of this man, my nephew wanted to know where he stood spiritually. There was a sense of urgency and concern in his little vocal articulation. He must know: Did this man worship Jesus Christ or did he worship Satan?

Completely unaware that his attentive ears had been eavesdropping on my conversation with his mom, I began to backpedal in my mind. How do I explain such intellectual, theological matters to a six year old? Certainly the man about whom we were speaking did not worship God; he had never responded to Christ’s call to repentance or received His grace. But worship Satan? That description seemed so…harsh. Surely this unregenerate man must be somewhere on the journey between the two.

I peered back into my nephew’s piercing, intelligent eyes, and in that moment, I realized that a child with little more than a kindergarten education had a more profound theology than his aunt, twenty years his senior with a Masters degree in ministry. Luke was correct; either we worship, fear, and serve Jesus Christ; or we worship, fear, and serve Satan—the very Enemy of our souls. There is no intermediary state or tertiary option, regardless of culture’s insistence to the contrary.

I wrote in my previous post, “Let us not cling to any patronizing notion that tells us that we can obtain or achieve autonomous freedom. Both the Enemy and the Almighty require of us our lives. But the former takes our life in order to destroy it, and the latter takes our life to give us abundant life. With the former, our death is an end. With the latter, our death is a means to an end. And that end is the fullness of life in Christ!” Satan masquerades under many names and titles. We “complexify” distortions of truth in our society. There is the worship of man (humanism), the worship of material objects and consumer goods (materialism and consumerism), the worship of pleasure (hedonism), the worship of self (egocentrism), the worship of tolerance (tolerationism), the worship of feelings (emotionalism), the worship of the individual (individualism), etc. The list could continue indefinitely because an utterly depraved heart persistently seeks after false objects for worship. It did not take long before the Israelites formed a golden calf upon which to outpour the worship that was arising within their hearts. It does not take long before we locate some feeling or idea or person or object of worship and outpour deep expressions of love and adoration upon it/him/her, even though these expressions were created within us to be outpoured upon Jesus Christ exclusively and exhaustively.

As I reflected even more deeply on my nephew’s question, I also found it fascinating that he did not ask me whether my friend was going to heaven or hell. Rather, Luke wanted to know whether my friend worshipped God or Satan. His question was theologically sound. Salvation is not a matter of whether one wants heaven or hell: paradise or fire and brimstone. When given the choice, which mentally sound and rationally sensible person would not choose eternal paradise over eternal damnation? But as my six-year-old nephew can articulate, salvation is a matter of whether one wants God or Satan; there is no spiritual “purgatory” of choice. To choose anything other than Jesus Christ and His glory is to choose Satan. The natural consequence of either decision is heaven or hell. But heaven is no more of an end than hell is an end. They are both means to an end: one end results in the worship of Jesus Christ in His presence for all eternity; the other end results in separation from the love of God and the intimate experience of His wrath and displeasure.

Would you be content in Heaven if God were not there? The question is hardly original, yet absolutely essential to evaluating true salvation. In Altogether Lovely, Jonathan Edwards asks, “What is it which chiefly makes you desire to go to heaven when you die? Indeed some have no great desire to go to heaven. They do not care to go to hell, but if they could be safe from that they would not much concern themselves about heaven. If it is not so with you, but you find that you have a desire after heaven, then inquire what it is for. Is the main reason that you may be with God, have communion with Him, and be conformed to Him? That you may see God and enjoy Him there? Is this the consideration which keeps your hearts, your desires, and your expectations towards heaven?” (10).

Or take Asaph. Can you honestly echo the cry of Asaph’s heart in Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but You? Besides You I desire nothing on earth.” Seeking after heaven in order to avoid eternal damnation is a search for safety, not for salvation. Salvation is nothing less than the desire for God Himself, which is expressed through obedient submission and humble worship. Edwards writes, “Now the main reason why the godly man has his heart thus to heaven is because God is there; that is the palace of the Most High. It is the place where God is gloriously present, where His love is gloriously manifested, where the godly may be with Him, see Him as He is, and love, serve, praise, and enjoy Him perfectly. If God and Christ were not in heaven, he would not be so earnest in seeking it, nor would he take so much pains in a laborious travel through this wilderness, nor would the consideration that he is going to heaven when he dies be such a comfort to him under toils and afflictions. The martyrs would not undergo cruel sufferings from their persecutors with a cheerful prospect of going to heaven did they not expect to be with Christ and to enjoy God there. They would not with cheerfulness forsake all their earthly possessions, and all their earthly friends, as many thousands of them have done, and wander about in poverty and banishment, being destitute, afflicted, and tormented, in hopes of exchanging their earthly for a heavenly inheritance, were it not that they hope to be with their glorious Redeemer and heavenly Father. The believer’s heart is in heaven because his treasure is there” (3-4).

So who do you worship, God or Satan? Where does the treasure of your heart reside?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Freedom in Christ

Today we celebrate our nation’s freedom. In the midst of listening to patriotic music, enjoying a cookout with my family, and watching fireworks light up the night sky, I am taking a moment to reflect on the freedom that is found in Christ. I have met many sincere, godly individuals who grapple with the concept of Christian freedom. Wrestling with the rules and regulation with which they have been raised, they question what activities, actions, and behaviors are appropriate for the one who worships Jesus Christ. To more fully understand the meaning of freedom in Christ, I turn to Paul’s exhortation recorded in the sixth chapter of Romans.

Dead to Sin

In the first verse of chapter six, Paul asks the same question as many well-meaning Christians. Because we have been given the grace of God, should we exercise our Christian freedom by engaging in sinful behaviors? It is an interesting question. But Paul’s answer is an emphatic, “By no means!” He masterfully uses the imagery of slavery, explaining that the follower of Christ is no longer a slave to sin; it has been mortified in the life of the believer. As long as we have a sin nature, we will have sinful tendencies. For the believer, however, freedom in Christ is the freedom to sever all allegiances to our old nature and to pledge our allegiances to Jesus Christ. We must exercise our freedom by moving away from the downward spiral of sin that results in death and moving onto the upward trajectory towards holiness—a journey called sanctification—that results in eternal life.

Slaves to Righteousness

Paul continues with his chosen slavery motif and labels the follower of Christ as a slave to righteousness. Your freedom in Christ necessitates your slavery to righteousness. Herein lies the great paradox. Your bondage and your freedom are both forms of slavery. Let us not cling to any patronizing notion that tells us that we can obtain or achieve autonomous freedom. Both the Enemy and the Almighty require of us our lives. But the former takes our life in order to destroy it, and the latter takes our life to give us abundant life. With the former, our death is an end. With the latter, our death is a means to an end. And that end is the fullness of life in Christ! Paul summarizes it this way: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:22-23, ESV).

As you rejoice today in your political freedom, rejoice all the more in your spiritual freedom. Friends, through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, we have been set free from slavery to sin which results in death! Just as our political freedom required the shedding of blood, so our spiritual freedom required the shedding of Christ’s blood on our behalf. Let us take a moment today to offer up thanksgiving to God for offering to us the greatest Freedom of all time—that which transcends geographical boundaries and transforms the hearts of humankind!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Source and Object of My Love

I am in love with love. The most exquisite notion of all that is beautiful and wondrous, it culminates in knowing and being known. It drives the affections and titillates the intellect, creating relentless, passionate pursuit. Deep desire burns and bubbles and bursts forth like the water in a cauldron under a hot flame.

There is a Source of my love, for I have neither the creative power nor the purity of heart to will it into being. A heart that is “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9) cannot produce anything as exquisitely beautiful as love; out of its depravity, it can only twist and distort and defile the purity and essence of Divine Love. The Source of my love, then, is You, O my Lord and Savior. For I did not love first, but You first loved me (I Jn. 4:19).

If You are the Source of my love, then I am one conduit of Your love. It flows into me from the Source, passes through me, and is outwardly expressed from me. Therefore there is also an object of my love—that which receives the exquisite and beautiful affection created within me from You, the Source. And in measure of the love that I have been given, there must be a Primary Object which is the recipient of my deepest love and greatest affection.

My life, O Lord, is a quest to identify the rightful Object of my deepest love. At times, I find its fulfillment in an object called Matter—that which is tangible, but transient. There are fixed objects all around me that vie for my attention and affection. I can manipulate them, acquire more of them, and mold them into my liking for my use. But Matter has an elusive and mysterious power over me and turns me into a Materialist. I find that it does not pour love into me, but requires all of my love from me. And as I am required to pour out without being poured into, this finite creature who cannot create love any more than she can create the universe, is left feeling empty.

Another object calls out to me with the name of Power—that which is intangible, but also transient. The desire for it pulsates through my veins, moving to the rhythm that man is the measure of all things. Its friend, Knowledge, holds its hand, and together they dance through my mind, enticing me to join in the rhythm of their beat. They call me to move one foot forward, then another, faster and faster, until I am spinning and swirling and twirling at a dizzying rate. And when I arise victorious, they call me Humanist. But that which is intangible and transient also beckons me to love it, and it says that I must deny You, Lord, in the process. In taking up my crown and discarding the cross that You call me to bear, I am left with only a distorted, twisted, depraved love of self. And once again, I am empty.

A much more attractive object comes along and its name is Man—that which is tangible and intransient—for while he was not pre-existent, he is an eternal being. This object of love finds its attractiveness in the very truth that it has been created in Your very image. And perhaps that is what makes it the most desirous and dangerous of all. It is not content to ask for my love as a means to an End, but it desires to become my End. I pay tribute to it and it becomes an object of worship. It labels me Idolater and Adulterer, for it robs me of the love and affection that I have already given to Another. And because the love it gives to me is a mockery of the Love that I am intended to receive, I am still left utterly empty.

Upon the darkness of my condition breaks forth the Voice of Truth, the Light of light. It is the Source of Love Himself—He who is intangible and intransient. It is You, my Lord and Savior! You whisper into my soul, “The Source of Love is the Object of love.” While all else that surrounds me desires to be the recipient of my love, only the Source of Love deserves to be the recipient of my love. You, my Source, pour into this conduit so Your love might flow through her back to You. The Object is both the Giver and the Receiver. You label me Chosen and Beloved, for You called me out before the establishment of the foundations of the earth. In You, my identity is secure. And I am left feeling satisfied and fulfilled, for there is a constant flow of pouring into so that I may pour out Your Love to You.

O, to know and to love You more! How my heart longs to be in constant and continual communication with You, and thereby to receive unending joy and assured hope. Might You impart to me a greater passion and root within me a deeper adoration for my Savior. Become the Object of my love just as You are the Source of my love. Envelop me in Your Love so that I may see You; and in seeing You, know You; and in knowing You, love You; and in loving You, savor You; and in savoring You, worship You.

May the things that break Your heart shake me to the core. Grant to me a supreme dissatisfaction with the folly of this life, and make my heart loathe the idolatrous affections that woo my spirit. Become the Great Iconoclast at work within my soul. Destroy any desire within me to rob You of Your glory and replace my foolish pursuit of self with a grounded, firm, and unshakable pursuit of You. May my cries of desperation call to You as the Object of fulfillment. Cause my heart to echo the Psalmist’s, until my “soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord.” Make my “heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps. 84:2). When my soul is drowning and gasps for air, fill my lungs with the sweet oxygen of Your presence. Dwell in my heart, Christ Jesus my Lord, rooting and grounding me in Love. Only then will I have the “strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” And only then will I “be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:17-19), the Source and Object of my Love!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sacrifice of Praise

This post is dedicated to a dear friend, whose praise to God will be uttered through deep pain tonight. May you cling to Jesus, and in His abundant grace and mercy, find the healing for which your soul aches.

Throughout my life, whenever I faced a trial, my mom would quote Hebrews 13:15 to me. It reads, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise....” While she lavished her love and compassion on me, identifying with my pain, she would not allow me to wallow in self-pity for too long. Though I always expected it, I did not always enjoy hearing her gentle rebuke from Scripture. But she was always right, and those words renewed life in my weary soul. Real, genuine praise always requires a sacrifice. Praise is God’s antidote to the pain.

As the years have passed, I have learned detrimental mechanisms to cope with any painful situations that arise. These usually involve society’s distractions. When I need to drown out my own sorrow, I turn to noise. If praise is God’s antidote to pain, then noise is society’s tranquilizer. Give me an injection with the serum of comedy or drama on television, music on an iPod, products in the shopping mall, mindless surfing on the Internet, the newest application on Facebook, worlds of escape in a book, excessive exercise regiments at the gym, superficial conversations over dinner with friends, work that “must get done” before tomorrow…and the list continues. Give me anything. Anything but Jesus.

We turn to noise because it is temporarily effective at drowning out our sorrow. But then the sedative wears off and we the feel the pain once again in full force. Not knowing where to turn, we repeat this vicious cycle, desperately longing for healing and release the second time around. But once again we are left feeling empty and alone, grasping for anything that offers us a glimmer of hope.

In His beautiful, divine, mysterious plan, God has designed everything in this life other than Himself to cause our hearts to ache for something Deeper and Higher and Greater than anything this world has to offer. We can eat of the world, but we cannot savor its flavor for very long. It is distasteful and dissatisfying. The more we eat of it, the more our hunger grows because it was never intended to nourish our spirits or nurture our souls.

There is only One who can satisfy, and His name is Jesus Christ. Right when our souls cry, “Give me anything but Jesus,” we need to run all the more quickly to Him. We must continually offer praise to Him, and it is precisely the sacrifice that makes our praise so pleasing to His ears and penetrating to our inner beings.

Larnelle Harris penned the following song lyrics,

When praise demands a sacrifice
I’ll worship even then
Surrendering the dearest things in life
And if devotion costs me all
He’ll find me faithful to His call
When praise demands a sacrifice

Through God’s enabling power, we must make a conscious decision to be faithful to His call, surrendering all in life that we hold dear, because we clearly perceive that Christ is supremely more beautiful and infinitely more worthy than anything that this life has to offer. We must not be afraid to dwell in the midst of our pain, stare it in the face, and at the top of our lungs scream that God is good at all times regardless of our circumstances! It is only here—in the place of paradox, dwelling in our pain while clinging to the goodness of God—that our hearts will find the rest, contentment, hope, assurance, and peace that Christ has intended for us.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Part Six: Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Part Six: Returning to its Missiological Call

For parts one through five, see the posts directly following.

If the church does not exist to satisfy its own needs but to incarnate the love of Christ to the world around them, which I firmly believe is the calling of every church body, then every ministry must transform into a vibrantly externally-focused ministry of the church. Instead of focusing attention on attracting newcomers into the church through creating polished products, churches should concentrate on equipping their teams of volunteers to enter into their communities with the message of the Gospel using acts of service as their platform. Both approaches may result in an increase in church attendance, but an externally-focused approach invites the Holy Spirit to produce this growth. The church that is preoccupied with serving the needs of others has little time to preoccupy itself with its own needs.

When newcomers enter the building, they understand that they a significant part of a larger community of believers. They will not be entertained during the church service, but challenged to find their place within the missiological community that is already established. Dr. Darby Ray, professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps College writes, “Worship is entertainment when it fails to challenge the worshippers to live differently and to carry out the ministry of the church in the world.”[1] Being entertained and embodying Christ’s call to become a missiological community are contradictory. Visitors to mega-churches must understand that they are being invited to become active participants in a way of life that transcends the individual and impacts the world around them. And the primary objective of their service is not to meet needs of those in the community, but to have a platform to proclaim the Gospel message, addressing the real need of the regeneration of the unsaved. The worship of Jesus Christ is the ultimate aim of a missiological community.[2]

In struggling through these issues, my passion has deepened to see the American church transform into a missiological community that maintains its doctrinal purity. My vision for mega-church communities is best articulated by the Gospel and Our Culture Network:

[My vision for the American church is that it will focus] on celebrating God’s presence and promises without seeking or expecting worship to be the occasion for God to meet human needs. The congregation departs from worship, knowing that it is a sent and sending community, and each Christian is conscious of his or her apostolic sentness as light, leaven, and salt in the world.[3]

In reminding the American church of its missiological calling and shifting the emphasis of its ministry life away from an internally-focused philosophy to an externally-focused reality, my goal is that the church will withstand the temptation to favor business principles over biblical principles, emphasize quantity over quality, and succumb to a world-centered entertainment style rather than a Word-centered proclamation of truth.

The rhythm of the world and its methods creates dissonance and disharmony. If the church sings to the tune of the world’s music, it will lose sight of its calling to be the light that shines in the darkness. Rather than proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, it will begin to proclaim itself.[4] But stepping into the cadence of the divine song composed by God, the church begins harmonizing with the melody sung by her Bridegroom. Singing this sweet song requires the church to adjust its life “to the presence and activity of our living Lord, one day at a time.”[5] It is a song of surrender, and the lyrics are beautifully expressed in Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”[6] The church as an organization is structured, standing erect and powerful, finding an identity in the name that it has made for itself. The church as an organism is fluid, bowing in reverence and humble submission to the God who is power; finding an identity in losing itself, only to discover that it has gained Christ.[7]


[1] Darby Kathleen Ray, ed., Theology that Matters: Ecology, Economy, and God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), 175.
[2] Lois Y. Barrett and others, Treasure in Clay Jars: Patters in Missional Faithfulness (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), 100.
[3] The Gospel and Our Culture Network, “Empirical Indicators of a ‘Missional Church’”; available from http://www.gocn.org/newsletters/pdf/103-newsletter.pdf; Internet; accessed 29 April 2008.
[4] 2 Cor. 4:5-6
[5] Blackaby, What the Spirit is Saying, 73
[6] Isa. 55:8-9
[7] Phil. 3:8

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Part Five: Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Part Five: World-Centered Entertainment vs. Word-Centered Truth

For parts one through four, see the posts directly following.

In addition to fighting the temptation to employ business principles instead of biblical principles and focus on quantity instead of quality, the market-driven church must relinquish its fascination with world-centered entertainment by proclaiming the Word-centered truth. The method of using entertainment in the context of church services began with a genuine desire to attract the unchurched to the church. Robert Schuller, Senior Pastor of Crystal Cathedral in California, is credited as the first pastor to successfully incorporate marketing techniques into the life of the church. He comments, “The secret of winning unchurched people into the church is really quite simple. Find out what would impress the nonchurched in your community [then give it to them].”[1] Growing churches understand that the unchurched are attracted to lively services that mimic the style of music to which they enjoy listening on their iPods and messages that address their day-to-day concerns. The unchurched feel comfortable when churched individuals relate to them without using Christian jargon or look down upon them for their differing viewpoints.[2] Churches that offer comfortable, entertaining services find success.

In 1975, a young man named Bill Hybels and a small group of his acquaintances envisioned how a church sensitive to the seeker might operate. Understanding that many of the unchurched were at one time disillusioned by the church-as-institution, Hybels and his friends wanted to introduce seekers to authentic believers who cared for their needs at every level. Their goal was to provide a safe place for the unbeliever to ask questions without being judged, where they in turn could point the seeker to Jesus Christ. On October 12, 1975, Hybels’ vision came to fruition as Willow Creek Community Church held its first service[3]. The church now reaches an estimated 20,000 individuals each week.

Market-driven churches such as Willow Creek have rightly invested in people and committed themselves to studying the needs of those they intend to reach. Conducting door-to-door surveys, listening intently to the hurts and misconceptions of the unchurched, and warmly inviting them to attend a “different” style of church, they express the love of Christ to those around them. They understand the vernacular of the unchurched, thereby enabling them to communicate effectively with seekers. In speaking their language, many of the pastors of market-driven churches are master storytellers.[4] Reflecting Jesus’ extraordinary ability to use parables, metaphors, and symbolism that was understood by His audience, market-driven church pastors make their message relevant by using the symbols of the contemporary world, including modern art, the latest technology, and references to popular culture. Bill Hybels admitted that he struggled with the resources that are required to keep up with the latest technology and present polished productions each week to his audience, but in counting the costs, he considered it worthwhile. Whenever he doubts his decision, he remembers the reason why he continues with these productions:

Because some lost man or woman, who matters more to God than we can possibly understand, might come on the arm of one of our believers and get a first glimpse of what Christianity is like. And that glimpse might set the dominoes falling, so that someday that person will come to understand who Christ is, then build a relationship with Him, and eventually sit in a small circle of believers in which he or she can experience the church.[5]

Thus market-driven churches package the product that they are selling more attractively, and in so doing, they draw the interest of the unchurched. They reverse the stereotype of the church as a conventional, dull, lifeless establishment. If the church changes its methods, meets the needs of the consumer, and reverses its negative stereotype, the consumer will ultimately buy the message of Christ. But what message is the consumer buying? The market-driven church is unintentionally teaching that God exists to meet the felt needs of the unbeliever. This message, supremely attractive to the unchurched, is quickly becoming a best-seller. The problem is that this is not the message of downward mobility that ends at the foot of the cross. The apostle Paul asserts that “no one understands; no one seeks for God” and that “the cross is folly to those who are perishing.”[6] The message of the cross is abrasive because it mortifies man’s desire to see his deepest needs fulfilled in favor of seeing the beauty and supremacy of Jesus Christ manifested in all things.

The problem with the market-driven approach is not in conducting ethnographic studies to explore the needs of the surrounding culture, nor is the problem the church’s desire to address people’s needs. The problem lies in the answers that the church provides. Does the church suggest that the latest Christian self-help book can answer all of life’s problems, or does it point to Jesus Christ as the only Savior of the world? Does the church blame all of life’s problems on psychological dysfunction and moral imperfections, or does it identify that the root of life’s problems is sin? Educational theorists and market-driven ministry practitioners are informed by Abraham Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, human beings must have their fundamental needs met before they can reach the highest level of self-actualization. Even at the pinnacle of his pyramid diagram, the summit is centered on self.[7] The church that focuses on felt needs fails to detonate the bomb that destroys the pyramid of self and enables one to reach above and beyond humanistic thinking to the deification of God and the detestation of self.

Church marketing techniques may be successful in attracting newcomers, but they fail at presenting the Gospel message with the clarity and conviction that changes one’s character. The market-driven church attracts those who are seeking entertainment, free childcare, an emotional experience, a weekly concert, motivational messages, a feeling of fulfillment within a loving community, and intellectual discourse with other likeminded individuals. These elements of the market-driven church are not inherently evil, but they miss the mark when they become the end rather than the means to an end. The ultimate purpose of the church is not the fulfillment of perceived needs; it is the worship of a holy God. As David Wells writes, “Neither Christ nor his truth can be marketed by appealing to consumer interest, because the premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s need is sovereign, that the customer is always right, and this is precisely what the Gospel insists cannot be the case.”[8] In one of the many beautiful paradoxes recorded in Scripture, Jesus declares that the one who “loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”[9] In forfeiting comfort, ease, worldly pleasure and earthly gain, the follower of Jesus Christ gains life. And this is the path leading towards the hope and fulfillment to which the church must point at all times.

Author James Twitchell, who describes himself as a “humanist, universalist, atheist,” expresses his disgust at the effort of the market-driven church to “sell God.” Even as one of the “seekers” that the market-driven church is attempting to reach, Twitchell clearly perceives the drastic measures the church is willing to take in order to draw him into the building, and the way the message is compromised in the process. He writes, “The sermons (and they are not called that; they are called messages) are invariably encouraging and easy to swallow, sugarcoated with optimism and affirmation. No one is called a sinner; they’re just someone with a broken part.”[10] Market-driven churches insist that the language of sin is outdated, harsh, and condescending. Rather than hitting a nerve that makes congregants squirm in their seats, better marketing techniques suggest that the church offers people a message that leaves them feeling comfortable. The accusatory term “sin” is replaced with the less condemning phrases “poor choice” or “error in judgment.” But the issue is not simply one of semantics. Employing these terms changes the connotations of the words and the result is a diluted theology. A world that is blinded to the truth needs to hear the Gospel proclaimed with clarity and sincerity. Dr. John MacArthur writes, “…the truth of God does not tickle our ears; it boxes them. It burns them. If first reproves, rebukes convicts—then exhorts and encourages.”[11]

The twenty-first century church walks a fine line, trying to balance cultural relevancy with doctrinal integrity. Cross the line and the church becomes driven by marketing strategies and slick methods rather than a call to unapologetically proclaim truth in a spiritually relativistic culture hungry to embrace something that is above and beyond earthly existence—that which is the resurrection power of Jesus Christ. If the church fails to do this, it becomes “just a Christian Oprah Winfrey Show, mirroring the culture but not bringing scriptural truths to bear on it.”[12] The church must be message-driven rather than market-driven. Comfort is not character-forming and convenience does not challenge. In surrendering to Christ and remaining faithful to the teaching of His Word, the church allows God to miraculously and supernaturally provide for its needs in order that His glory might be on display as preeminent and supreme. Surrender necessitates sacrifice. To gain Christ, the market-driven church must renounce its craving to rise above its “competitors” and become the most powerful, most populous, most polished, most potent, most prosperous church on the corner.


[1] G.A. Pritchard, Willow Creek Seeker Services, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 51.
[2] Michael Fewson, Will the Real Church Stand Up: How the Gospel of Jesus Christ Contradicts the Contemporary Church (Longwood: Xulon Press, 2006), 78.
[3] Hybels, Rediscovering Church, 59.
[4] Twitchell, Shopping for God, 283.
[5] Hybels, Rediscovering Church, 16.
[6] Rom. 3:11, 1 Cor. 1:18
[7] Mark Driscoll, Confessions of a Reformission Rev.: Hard Lessons from an Emerging Missional Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 24.
[8] Wells, God in the Wasteland, 82.
[9] John 12:25
[10] Twitchell, Shopping for God, 243.
[11] MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, 37.
[12] Hybels, Rediscovering Church, 187.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Part Four: Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Part Four: Quantity vs. Quality

For parts one through three, see the posts directly following

Church consultant Thom Rainer studied the fastest growing churches in America and determined that there is one common denominator between these churches: prayer is the cornerstone of their ministries.[1] Prayer is a sign of spiritual health, and according to Rainer, churches that are growing numerically also report a higher level spiritual health among their members than churches that are stagnant in numerical growth. Correlating the numerical and spiritual growth of a church, he believes that churches must place an emphasis on increasing attendance numbers in order to have spiritually effective ministries.[2] Barna concurs with Rainer, believing that it is impossible to “secure quality without quantity.”[3] Numerical growth is an important measurement tool for churches. If church attendance increases weekly, the church must be accomplishing its goals. Barna believes that numerical growth is “an indication that something exciting and meaningful is happening.”[4] The size of the church is becoming the measuring rod of success. Church marketing techniques work well at boosting attendance. The question is not whether these techniques work, but if the “something exciting and meaningful” that Barna identifies is truly biblical. Are Rainer and Barna correct in their conviction that quantity and quality are directly correlated?

Whenever Jesus’ teaching attracted large crowds, He reminded His audience that there was a cost associated with following Him.[5] The fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke recounts a time when a “great crowd” gathered to hear Jesus teach. When Jesus looked into the faces of the fascinated group, He unapologetically spoke the hard truth of the Gospel: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”[6] Scripture does not record the reaction of the crowds, but most likely, many turned away in disgust at His “abrasive” message. His approach was hardly “exciting and meaningful,” but it was truth.

This is not to imply that all growing churches are compromising the Gospel message. The apostle Paul testified that he “planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”[7] “But churches do need to recognize the enormous pressure they face to soft-pedal the Gospel in order to attract and appeal to increasingly demanding and discriminating consumers.”[8] Market-driven churches compartmentalize their methodology and their message, failing to perceive the interconnectedness between the methods they use to draw people into the door and the explicit or implicit message they preach by using those methods. A church desiring to attract people into their building at all costs may offer events and programs that are based on meeting psychological needs and never point individuals to the truth of the Gospel. The message becomes distorted when it is driven by erroneous methods. In these instances, it is not the Gospel that is being preached, but a church event that is being sold to interested consumers eager to have their psychological needs met.[9]

Additionally, a focus on quantity over quality encourages church-shopping, an attractive and acceptable option within the American church. Trying to determine which church best meets their needs, church-shoppers visit various congregations until they settle on one that “feels right.” The market-driven church appeals to these individuals. They are allowed to window shop without being asked to make a commitment. Treated like customers, they are promised the fulfillment of their felt needs.[10] They are eventually lured in by the attractive packaging of the message, unable to resist the God who satisfies their desires. At this point, the church that has drawn people into its building by promising the fulfillment of perceived needs is in a quandary. How will it handle the plethora of felt needs that contradict Scripture? The individual’s desire to feel validated living out the American dream of success, wealth, and popularity is a felt need. Does the church explain that it cannot meet this carnal desire that is birthed from pride and egocentrism? Does it draw people to its doors using one method, only to preach a message that decries this same approach? The church must decide whether or not it will take a bold stance and proclaim that not all human needs are legitimate. It must choose whether it will declare God’s calling to the Christian to “deny himself and take up his cross” in order to follow his Savior.[11] Unfortunately, “since such a strategy of bait-and-switch will likely be met with incredulity if not anger and resentment...most churches will [not] have the courage to actually follow through.”[12] Those who do follow through and maintain doctrinal purity will detract many visitors who are seeking a church “that will be less judgmental and more user-friendly.”[13]


[1] Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth: History, Theology, and Principles (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1993), 177.
[2] Ibid., 174.
[3] Wells, God in the Wasteland, 78.
[4] Barna, Marketing the Church, 157, quoted in Philip D. Kenneson and James L. Street, Selling Out the Church: The Dangers of Church Marketing (Eugene: Cascade Books, 1997), 124.
[5] Kenneson and Street, Selling Out the Church, 126.
[6] Luke 14:26
[7] 1 Cor. 3:6
[8] Kenneson and Street, Selling Out the Church, 126.
[9] Wells, God in the Wasteland, 82-3.
[10] Kenneson and Street, Selling Out the Church, 67.
[11] Matt. 16:24
[12] Kenneson and Street, Selling Out the Church, 83.
[13] Ibid.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Part Three: Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Part Three: Business Principles vs. Biblical Principles

For parts one and two, see the posts directly following

Market-driven churches employ business strategies and incorporate them into a philosophy of ministry. Advocates of using business techniques have identified their advantage. Marketing enables churches to determine that which motivates consumers in order to produce a given response. If a church understands the interests of the surrounding community, it can tailor its ministry programs to attract those within the community into the church. By drawing these individuals into the church, marketing methods facilitate the flow of resources into the church. These resources include both people and funding. Marketing techniques promote cost efficiency, providing ministries with the education to make informed decisions regarding ministry effectiveness versus cost expenditure. This encourages ministries to prioritize the most important programs and discontinue those that are least effective. Therefore it also promotes a smooth organizational flow.[1]

George Barna explains church marketing:

Activities such as advertising, public relations, strategic planning, audience research, product distribution, fund-raising and product pricing, developing a vision statement, and customer service are all elements of marketing. When these elements are combined in a transaction in which the parties involved exchange items of equivalent worth, the marketing act has been consummated.[2]

By creating a vision, hiring those who share the vision and are willing to promote it, and following a set of guidelines to implement the vision, the product may be successfully marketed. The entire process is organized, structured, and linear, moving from one fixed point to another. In capitalizing on these techniques, the church progresses toward a goal using “the same wisdom and savvy that characterizes any for profit business.”[3]

Marketing techniques such as the advertising of events, visitor follow-up procedures, and providing sufficient parking spaces for congregants are crucial in church ministry. Without this structure, the church would lack organization, which in turn would impact the effectiveness of its ministries. When these procedures are seen as a means to a greater end, churches successfully implement organizational methods. The danger enters in when the church markets the Gospel by catering to the felt needs of consumers rather than directing them towards the Word of God to meet their real needs. When the Gospel is compromised to attract newcomers, the church has crossed the line. Gilley clarifies, “…it is one thing to market the church; it is another to market the Gospel.”[4]

Churches must remember that attractively advertising their ministry programs, providing fringe benefits to members, and offering a warm greeting at the door does not guarantee that individuals will have encountered the transforming power of Jesus Christ by the time that they exit the church building each week.[5] David Wells argues:

[The market-driven church is] replete with tricks, gadgets, gimmicks, and marketing ploys as it shamelessly adapts itself to our emptied-out, blinded, postmodern world. It is supporting a massive commercial enterprise of Christian products, it is filling the airways and stuffing postal boxes, and it is always begging for money to fuel one entrepreneurial scheme after another, but it is not morally resplendent. It is mostly empty of real moral vision, and without a recovery of that vision its faith will soon disintegrate.[6]

Perhaps the market-driven church has created too polished of a product to realize its desperate need for God, and it is at this point that the church has lost its moral vision. Self-reliance corrupts submission to the will of God. A church that asks God to bless its plans after those plans have already been established misses the point completely. The church must become utterly reliant upon God. When leaders of the church learn to rely on God, they light the spark that sets the congregation ablaze. God works powerfully in and through a body of believers whose minds are fixed on Christ and who are surrendered to His calling. Pastor and teacher Henry Blackaby writes, “When a church realizes it all depends on God, not them, and will together yield their lives fully to Him, God begins to work. It doesn’t depend on numbers, status, skills, or even resources. The future depends on God and on His people who will hear Him, believe Him, and obey Him.”[7]

The church led by the Holy Spirit is not guided by business philosophies inspired by marketing specialists; rather, it is guided by biblical principles of spiritual growth directed by the Holy Spirit. David Wells skillfully articulates the difference:

A business is in the market simply to sell its products; it doesn’t ask consumers to surrender themselves to the product. The church, on the other hand, does call for such a surrender. It is not merely marketing a product; it is declaring Christ’s sovereignty over all of life and declaring the necessity of obedient submission to him and to the truth of his Word. When the church is properly fulfilling the task it has been assigned, it is demanding far more than any business would ever think of asking prospective customers. Simply put, the church is in the business of truth, not profit. Its message—the message of God’s Word—enters the innermost place in a person’s life, the place of secrets and anguish, of hope and despair, of guilt and forgiveness, and it demands to be heard and obeyed in a way that not even the most brazen and unprincipled advertisers would think of emulating. Businesses offer goods and services to make life easier or more pleasant; the Bible points the way to Life itself, and the way will not always be easy or pleasant. At most, businesses are accountable only to stockholders and a variety of regulators; the church is accountable to God.[8]

[1] Robert Stevens and others, Concise Encyclopedia of Church and Religious Organization Marketing (Binghamton: Hawort Reference Press, 2006), 12.
[2] Barna, Marketing the Church, 19, quoted in Gilley, This Little Church, 35.
[3] Barna, Marketing the Church, 26, quoted in David F. Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 276.
[4] Gilley, This Little Church, 37.
[5] Ibid., 42.
[6] David F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 180.
[7] Henry Blackaby, What the Spirit is Saying to the Churches (Sisters: Multnomah, 2003), 29.
[8] Wells, God in the Wasteland, 76.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Part Two: Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message

Part Two: Introduction to the Problem: Marketing the Church or Marketing the Gospel?
For Part One: Historical Antecedents, see the post directly following.

But somewhere between the genesis of McGavran’s missiological approach to Church Growth and the establishment of the modern, powerful mega-church model, something went awry. The predominantly missiological approach was replaced by a principally market-driven frenzy. The fervor the church once had for Voetius’ conviction to see the “conversion of the heathen” while maintaining “the glory of God” was replaced with a new enthusiasm to increase numerical growth by using ostentatious marketing techniques. These “clever methods and gimmicks…might proselyte people into false conversions through fleshly persuasion.”[1]

Furthermore, the church is becoming obsessed with meeting the felt needs of the church consumer. In his best-seller, Marketing the Church, Barna writes:

It is…critical that we keep in mind a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message, is sovereign. If our advertising is going to stop people in the midst of hectic schedules and cause them to think about what we’re saying, our message has to be adapted to the needs of the audience. When we produce advertising that is based on the take-it-or-leave-it proposition, rather than on a sensitivity and response to people’s needs, people will invariably reject our message.[2]

With an elevated focus on self, the calling to be a missiological community that incarnates the Gospel message to a spiritual dying world is vanishing. The church that disregards its missiological calling will implode from its internal infatuation.

Admittedly, there are numerous churches that are clinging to the foundations of their faith and maintaining a strong missiological focus. Nevertheless, these churches are the exception rather than the rule. They are swimming upstream in a church ethos teeming with ministry practitioners who are eager to acquiesce to the surrounding culture. There is an escalating temptation in American culture to compromise the message of the Gospel in favor of the muddied waters of the modern method for Church Growth. The church is in dire straits unless it can reverse the hands of time and return once again to its missiological nucleus.

Too many North American churches are straddling the fence, with one leg firmly fixed on the foundation of their missiological calling, and one leg hesitantly planted on the ground of the popular Church Growth movement. These churches stand at the crossroads and two distinct voices beckon them to move forward, committing themselves fully to journey down one of two paths. The loudest voice calls them to commit to a market-driven approach of church ministry and growth. Market-driven churches “are identified by a philosophy of ministry intentionally designed to effect numerical growth…. More attention is paid to market strategy, business techniques and demographics than to New Testament instruction.”[3] The market-driven church uses gimmicks, tactics, and polished products that appeal to the consumer. It seeks to draw people into the church doors at all costs, even if the message is compromised in the process.

The whisper calling out to these churches challenges them to commit fully to a message-driven model of church ministry. Message-driven churches have a concern for doctrinal purity and move believers along a trajectory of deeper growth. The message is not amended to appeal to the ears of the audience; it is expressed with all truth, clarity, and conviction. Dr. John MacArthur writes:

[The Gospel message] is disturbing, revolting, upsetting, confrontive, convicting, and offensive to human pride. There’s no way to ‘market’ that. Those who try to erase the offense by making it entertaining inevitably corrupt and obscure the crucial aspects of the message. The church must realize that its mission has never been public relations or sales; we are called to live holy lives and declare God’s raw truth—lovingly but uncompromisingly—to an unbelieving world.”[4]

Churches that faithfully proclaim the Gospel are less focused on tactics to draw people into the building; they are more deliberate in shaping character so that the congregants reflect Christ when they leave the church building. Therefore message-driven churches are missiological. Instead of being internally-focused on meeting the felt needs of the congregants, they are externally-focused on living out the Great Commission, starting in their surrounding communities.

As an American reformer, my long-term goal is to encourage the American church to commit itself fully to a philosophy of ministry that is both message-driven and missiological, and to discard any market-driven tendencies toward which the church is leaning. I have identified three related ancillary goals, based on the predominant temptations that surface in the draw between message-driven and market-driven models. First, the church must promote biblical principles rather than business principles. Second, the church must focus on quality more than quantity. Third, the church must ground itself upon Word-centered truth while rejecting the method of world-centered entertainment. The stance mega-churches take on these issues is an expression of their philosophy of ministry, and it is essential that their approach is message-driven rather than market-driven.


[1] John F. MacArthur, Jr., Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1993), 77.
[2] George Barna, Marketing the Church (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988), 51, quoted in MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, 76.
[3] Gilley, This Little Church, 17.
[4] MacArthur, Ashamed of the Gospel, 72.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Deserting its Missiological Call: When Mass-Marketing Method Drives Mega-Church Message


This is an edited and reduced version of the final paper that I wrote for graduate school. I had the blessing of writing on a topic about which I am most passionate. My paper will be posted in six parts.

Part One: Historical Antecedents

Part Two: Introduction to the Problem: Marketing the Church or Marketing the Gospel?

Part Three: Business Principles vs. Biblical Principles

Part Four: Quantity vs. Quality

Part Five: World-Centered Entertainment vs. Word-Centered Truth

Part Six: Returning to its Missiological Call

Note: Unless you are an enthusiast of the study of modern Church Growth, the first section may appear to be a dry historical analysis of the movement. However, it lays the important groundwork for the implications of mega-church marketing in the following sections.


Two thousand years ago, followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ gathered in homes, “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”[1] These fundamental components of early church worship were informed from the apostles’ interactions with Jesus. They embraced His method of incarnational teaching, emphasized the importance of Christian community that Jesus first modeled in meeting with the twelve disciples, remembered His sacrificial death through celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and devoted themselves to prayer as Jesus had exemplified throughout His earthly ministry.

By modern standards, the methods of the early church were simplistic and unsophisticated. The apostles relied exclusively upon the clear proclamation of the Gospel and the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate the heart of the unbeliever and sanctify the soul of the believer. The message they proclaimed was life itself. The method of meeting in homes and informally discussing the doctrinal foundations of the faith was unpretentious. And yet, Scripture records the affect of their obedience in proclaiming the Gospel: “And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common.”[2] As their lives were transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, they began selling their belongings and sharing with those who had need. They gathered together daily, and gratitude overflowed from their hearts. Though simple, their methods were attractive. They had “favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”[3]

Two thousand years later, the church continues to grow as the Gospel spreads throughout Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.[4] The landscape of the church has emerged over the past two millennia as it adopts a different personality and distinctiveness informed by the current cultural milieu. In twenty-first century North America, the mega-church movement has become normative. Mega-churches report a weekly attendance of at least 2,000 worshippers.[5] In 1980, there were fifty mega-churches in America. This number increased to 1,210 by the year 2005.[6] By 2006, a new mega-church was being established every three days.[7] These indicators suggest that the North American church is growing and flourishing.

Examining the growth of the American church through a more critical lens, some surprising statistics surface. In 1937, an average of 41 percent of the population attended church. By the year 2006, this percentage rose slightly to 46 percent, an increase of only 5 percent in nearly 70 years.[8] These statistics take into account the exponential growth of mega-churches. Much less highlighted is the statistic that every eight days, another non-mega congregation permanently closes its doors.[9] And it is these smaller congregations that account for nearly 50 percent of the churches in America, numbering “fewer than 75 attendees on any given Sunday, and only 5 percent attract more than 350 [attendees].”[10] Meanwhile, 50 percent of all churchgoers attend the 10 percent of the largest mega-churches in America.[11] This suggests that reached individuals have moved from smaller churches into mega-churches; larger churches are not necessarily attracting the unchurched.
Prior to the rise of the mega-church, the waning of church attendance in 1960s America created a high level of concern among ecclesiologists. Research in the field of Church Growth escalated with statisticians and practitioners such as George Gallup, George Barna, and Lyle Schaller contributing their expertise.[12] The Church Growth movement, however, traced its roots to a much earlier time. Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), a Dutch missiologist, laid the framework for the views that have been adapted by modern Church Growth specialists. Voetius was convinced that “the first goal of mission is the conversion of the heathen; the second, the planting of churches; and the highest, the glory of God.”[13]

Donald McGavran (1897-1991) is the father of the modern Church Growth movement. McGavran served as a third-generation missionary in India, where he developed a passion to see the spread of the Gospel through the growth of the Indian church. Concerned that the church of India was stagnant, McGavran investigated the deterrents to church growth.[14] While in America as a student, McGavran attended a convention of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, an initiative instigated by Dwight L. Moody. Commenting on the impact of the event, McGavran wrote, “There it became clear to me that God was calling me to be a missionary, that he was commanding me to carry out the Great Commission. Doing just that has ever since been the ruling purpose of my life…. That decision lies at the root of the church-growth movement.”[15]

McGavran’s ideas of Church Growth were not widely disseminated until the 1970s. During this time, he wrote Understanding Church Growth, “which became the foundational textbook of the movement.”[16] He also founded the Institute for American Church Growth, which developed into the School of World Mission of Church Growth at Fuller Theological Seminary. McGavran organized a band of scholars within the School of World Mission who met together to discuss their convictions and broadly propagated their theories of Church Growth.[17] McGavran identified four key questions that guided the Church Growth movement:

1. What are the causes of church growth?
2. What are the barriers to church growth?
3. What are the factors that can make the Christian faith a movement among some populations?
4. What principles of church growth are reproducible?[18]

At this point, Church Growth was not dissociated from missiology. Church Growth specialists explored the reasons why select populations within a given culture were unreceptive to the Gospel, and the ways in which ministry practitioners might transcend cultural barriers in order to reach more people with the message of Jesus Christ.[19] At its core, the Church Growth movement was nothing revelatory; it was simply a proclamation of the Great Commission and establishing practices that would bring about its fulfillment. What became the precursor to the explosion of the modern mega-church was rooted in an externally-focused, missiological theology.

Thus the Church Growth movement operated under three assumptions. First, evangelism is not an ancillary purpose of the church, but the foundational mandate for the life of the believer. The church is called to incarnate the message of the Gospel, thereby impacting the surrounding community in the name of Jesus Christ. Second, the church must critically evaluate the obstacles to the advancement of the Gospel and report these findings for further analysis. Third, in interpreting these facts, the church must formulate practices that will enable growth and change to take place. As a result, any plan of action should include both the salvation of souls and the planting of new churches.[20]

McGavran’s focus was on applying principles of Church Growth internationally on the mission field. His colleague at Fuller, Peter Wagner, first applied Church Growth practices to the North American church. He published Your Church Can Grow, which became “one of the most influential books in spreading Church Growth thought in North America.”[21] During this time, Fuller tapped into the expertise of Wagner and developed a Doctor of Ministry program. Wagner contributed classes in Church Growth targeted not at international ministry leaders, but targeted at North American pastors and ministry leaders. Local ministry practitioners flocked to this program. Many of the graduates from the program successfully implemented Church Growth practices into their ministry contexts, and they began training other church leaders in these principles. Noteworthy alumni from Fuller’s Doctorate of Ministry program with an emphasis on Church Growth include Rick Warren, John Maxwell, Leith Anderson, Elmer Towns, Bill Sullivan, and Kent Hunter.[22]

Two models of Church Growth resulted: classical and popular. The classical model consisted of two schools: McGavran’s international focus and Wagner’s domestic focus. When the Fuller Institute for Evangelism and Church Growth closed its doors in 1995, the popular model of Church Growth replaced the former classical model.[23] The popular model includes the incorporation of Church Growth principles into the North American church and the reproduction of these theories by Church Growth specialists and statisticians, such as George Gallup and George Barna; church consultants; and training churches, the most prominent examples of which include Saddleback Church pastored by Rick Warren and Willow Creek Church pastored by Bill Hybels. Those interested in Church Growth shifted their gaze away from the declining influence of the classical model and onto pastors of thriving, flourishing churches.[24] Saddleback and Willow Creek, in particular, have laid the foundation for the modern mega-church movement.


[1] Acts 2:42 English Standard Version
[2] Acts 2:43-44
[3] Acts 2:47
[4] Acts 1:8
[5] Mara Einstein, Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age (New York: Routledge, 2008), xi.
[6] James B. Twitchell, Shopping for God: How Christianity Went from In Your Heart to In Your Face (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 48.
[7] Ibid., 230.
[8] The Barna Group, “Church Attendance”; available from http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=Topic&TopicID=10; Internet; accessed 26 April 2008.
[9] Twitchell, Shopping for God, 48.
[10] Dr. Gary E.Gilley, This Little Church Went to Market: The Church in the Age of Entertainment (Webster: Evangelical Press, 2005), 40.
[11] Twitchell, Shopping for God, 230.
[12] Paul E. Engle and Gary L. McIntosh, eds., Evaluating the Church Growth Movement (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 19.
[13] Ibid., 9.
[14] Charles Van Engen, “Church Growth Movement,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 538.
[15] Engle and McIntosh, Evaluating the Church, 10.
[16] Van Engen, “Church Growth Movement,” 538.
[17] David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 68.
[18] Engle and McIntosh, Evaluating the Church, 12.
[19] Van Engen, “Church Growth Movement,” 538.
[20] Engle and McIntosh, Evaluating the Church, 15-16.
[21] Ibid., 17.
[22] Ibid., 17-18.
[23] Ibid., 21.
[24] Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2006), 46.