Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Does Numerical Growth Equal Spiritual Growth?

I have recently begun reading a book by a professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary.  -  Some will ask, "What book?"  Others will ask "What professor?"  But the answers to those questions may distract from my comment below.  -  And, I know, some will ask, "Why are you reading a book from a prof. at Dallas Theological Seminary?"  I understand, but suffice it to say that I really do expect to gain some good information from the book.  However, it is too early in my reading to be able to judge how much value I will find in the book.

What I can say is that I have found in it the kind of presuppositions that many in the "church growth movement" make; the kind of presuppositions that I have to overlook and see past in order to find the value that I am hoping to find in the book.  -  For example, the author writes:

"I've noted over the years that some people tend to emphasize one type of growth over the other [i.e., numerical vs. spiritual]. . . .This viewpoint is unfortunate because numerical and spiritual growth should work together." -  Okay, so far.  -  "In most cases [I do note the qualifier], churches that aren't growing numerically by reaching lost people aren't growing spiritually either.  And some [notice the qualifier] churches grow numerically but not spiritually.  Again, spiritual and numerical growth must complement one another and are not opposed to one another."  -  Again, fine enough, so far, but then . . .". . . As stated in this section and depicted in Acts, success is seen in both spiritual and numerical growth, and the latter in most cases [noting the qualifier, again] reflects the former."

I am thankful for all of the qualifiers, but the clear presupposition is that growing (i.e., larger) churches reflect more spiritual growth.  It would seem, then, that most [notice my qualifier] mega-churches (in the view of the author) would be deeper, spiritually, than smaller churches.  -  Is this, however, what we find in reality? 

Has anyone ever heard of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen?  Perhaps this is why the author uses the "most cases" qualifier.  -  How about Willow Creek, whose self-study indicated that, while they did a great job growing numerically, they were not producing growing disciples?  -  And, of course, there are others that one could point to that "church growth" folks would likely hold up as positive examples, which I would argue fall short in the area of spiritual growth and making true, deep disciples of Christ.

Now, just because I have an issue with this presupposition, that does not mean that I think that smaller churches are necessarily doing a better job of growing spiritually.  There are likely far more examples of smaller churches that are not growing spiritually than mega-church examples.  This is so by virtue of the mere number of small churches compared to the number of mega-churches.  (Though, I am of the opinion that, given the option, it is more healthy to birth new churches than it is to grow a single church to "mega-church" size.)

Of course, I would absolutely agree that those who are growing spiritual will seek to share faith with the lost.  All things being equal, this should bring about numerical growth.  But all things are not always equal.  One has to consider population size and several other factors.  One must also recognize (which many church growth folks seem not to recognize) that some people really do reject the gospel!  Look at Jesus on the cross.  Look at Jesus in Nazareth (from this past week's lectionary reading), and the disciples having to shake the dust from their feet.  We certainly find the stories of the Church's (numerical) growth in the New Testament, but we also find examples of rejection, as well.

On the other hand, it is very clear (at least to some of us) that one can grow a "church" by giving people what they want and yet have very little to do with sound, orthodox, biblical Christian faith (again, Lakewood, and, truth be told, I could argue the case with some other well accepted, "poster child" mega-churches, as well).

I agree with the author that, in many cases, the two kinds of growth ought to go together.  But I disagree with any presupposition that says that numerical growth in most cases reflects spiritual growth.  I just think that there is much more to it than that, and I would not presuppose that a church that is growing numerically is growing spiritually.  Maybe they are.  Maybe they're not.

Still, as I indicated, this reflective of the kinds of things that I expect to have to look past in order to gain what I really do hope is much value from this book.  Maybe, when I finish reading it, I will come back to give a more thorough review!


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, Todd.

As I was reading I thought of something perhaps tangential to your point.

I wonder if the proper frame of reference for all these debates is not merely (or primarily) the local church but the Church at large.

In the UMC, we've been shedding members for 50 years. I can't see this as anything but a failure of our mission. I suspect the loss of members is related to the loss of spiritual discipline within the denomination. But it seems to me the two things go together and can be usefully considered if we look beyond the local church.

Anonymous said...

Todd, most people (not saying you are one of them) reject the church growth movement because a few errant views of said movement have overshadowed the movement. At the very core of the movement is reaching the lost. Yet I hear people bash the church growth movement because it seems overly concerned with numbers. The truth is, the more people you are reaching, the greater possibilities for reaching the lost. Does an apple tree that doesn't bear fruit still show signs of growth? Sure. But it never reaches its potential. A church that grows spiritually without growing numerically still bears fruit; but could produce even greater amount of fruit if it also increases its number.

Todd Stepp said...


I agree with what you have said, and I think my article reflects that agreement. However, most everything that I have read from folks in the church growth movement presuposes the kinds of things that this book does. They presupose that numerical growth means that they are "spiritual." And while I agree with the idea about reaching more and more people for Christ (of course!), my problem comes, I suppose, with the theology of being a disciple, or what it means to grow in Christ. Perhaps it is a bit along the lines of ecclesiology, as well.

I would also say, I really am not a fan of the mega-church model. I think that we would do much better, once we reach (an arbitrary!) certain size,to birth more churches, rather than attempt to have a mega-church. - Most mega-churches I know (and most are right in the thick of the church growth movement) seem to substitute entertainment for worship, and they seem to argue that what I have called entertainment is about reaching the lost (an admitting that it is something other than authentic Christian worship).

It is at the point of authentic worship that is connected with the patterns found in Scripture, the early church and the majority of the 2000 years of the Church, that I guess I have a real problem. And that, too, I think is essentially connected with the kinds of disciples we are trying to make. (And when I am talking about this, I am not talking about styles. I am talking about content, structure and an undrstanding of what authentic Christian worship is and the role that it plays for the Church.)

Obviously, though, I think that there is value in some of what is said by folks in the church growth movement. It is just that I argue an aweful lot when reading them.

And it is the attitude that I find with some of them, as well. One of your recent professors, for example. I talked with him about something in one of his books; the statements he made about ordination. I argued that it simply was not accurate concerning his picture of the ancient church. His response was, "You could be right."

That's all fine and good, but he didn't seem to care if I was right. It didn't matter to him if it was right or wrong, it was what he wrote, and would likely continue saying it, despite the fact that it really undermines the churches theology of ordination and the role of clergy. - If it is wrong, correct it! Why continue to produce stuff like that? - Because all he was interested in was reaching more people, beyond that, there was no concern about theological issues.

And my experience, which I hope is quite limited, is that this same kind of thing happens over and over again.

Again, all in favor of reaching the lost for Christ. Spiritual growth should result in numerical growth (in most cases), as well. If it doesn't, then one should question the claim to spiritual growth. (But I would say that in a number of today's churches, there needs to be some spiritual growth before you are able or perhaps want to bring new people in. That is unfortunate.)

Anonymous said...

Todd, I agree with your last statement wholeheartedly. The problem we face as pastors is when are we healthy enough, or when has spiritual growth occurred enough to say that we are ready to move forward and reach more souls for Christ. At the end of the church growth motto is that discipleship is not complete until that person who was lost, now found, is now reaching the lost. It is not enough just to get people saved. They must also be reaching out to others as well. That is the full cycle of McGavaran's church growth model. His study of churches in India revealed that there were certain reasons why some churches grew and why others declined. I think we take accountability of lost souls and of growth away from pastors when we say that the goal is spiritual health. What say you?

Anonymous said...

Would love to know what professor you spoke with.

Todd Stepp said...

Yeah, yeah, I'm sure you would like to know. Not on here! (Though, if you think about who you recently had and where I have gone to school, you can probably figure it out.)

I guess my problem with McGavaran's cycle, as you have presented it is that it has left out discipleship (including becoming and authentic worshipper), or rather, it has put all of discipleship into their reaching the lost. It seems that discipleship is seen as simply preparing them to reach the lost, as well. There is much more to being a Christian than that (e.g., corporate nature of the Church, worship, the sacraments, means of grace, spiritual disciplines, compassionate ministries, etc. etc.). (Though, on the other hand, there are so very many who do not seek to reach the lost at all!)

Anonymous said...

Complete discipleship is assumed. How else would subsequent Christians evangelize future converts? Read through McGavaran and Wagner, even Sullivan and you will find church growth is consumed with reaching the multitudes. Reaching them means teaching that Jesus is not only their Savior, but their Lord.

Todd Stepp said...

I'm glad to hear that. That has not been what I have read. The more I read of the book that I blogged about (I'm reading off and on), the more I argue. His presupositions (some of which he does not recognize) are often very much in conflict with my presupositions (the ones I do recognize)!

I think too, some of it goes back to what is a disciple. I assume that it is more than gaining information, but becomes a mindset and way of life that is steeped in the Christian faith as received through the ages.

At any rate, what I have read so often the "assumed" discipleship ends up conficting with my understanding of fully formed Christians.

Still, I obviously see value in some of what is put out, else I would not be reading it, and I certainly wouldn't be willing to fight through some of it in order to gain that value.

I hope that most of what I have read is simply out of the norm. - At least Willow Creek recognized that they were not producing the kind of disciples they wanted to. Don't know the kind of solution they came up with (but folks that are of a like mind with me argued that long before their self-study).

One more quick, high-profile example is SaddleBack & the Prupose Driven Church. There are some good things in there, but there is also a particular reading of Scripture that gave him his key points. And he is completely blind, it seems, when he, early on makes the distinction between his "seeker sensitive" services and "worship," then in his chapters on worship he only talks about his seeker sensitive stuff. He seems to imply that those who come to his "worship" service are not those involved in small groups and the opposite is true, as well.

Oh, just rattling off from memory! - Anyway, I'm glad that as you study the Church Growth Movement in much more detail than I, you have found that the things that have concerned me are not as widespread as I have thought. - I'm all for church growth, just haven't been a fan of the church growth movement. I hope that it is only a matter of too little exposure.