The limits of church growth
My latest column at Christian Week:
Alan Hirsch, author of The Forgotten Ways, argues that people in our culture generally have good perceptions of God, Jesus, and spirituality, but have very negative perceptions of church. Speaking near Toronto in late June, Hirsch argued that churches that are doing the best in places like Australia and Canada follow the contemporary church growth model, but even this approach appeals to only 12-15% of the population. God is using this model, Hirsch said, but it is limited in its effectiveness and will never reach a large proportion of the population.
I have found this recently at the church I pastor. We are promoting a summer camp in the community and have run into a lot of people who like the idea of a kid’s camp, but want nothing to do with a church. Even in the States, which is arguably less secular, Gallup reports that confidence in the church is reaching an all-time low. In Canada, one-quarter of the population believes that churches contribute to intolerance and distrust.
Canadian Christian radio host Drew Marshall recently hired two non-Christians to visit churches and report on their experience. They visited one large church with a reputation for appealing to those who are cynical about religion and institutional churches to church. Even in this church, the non-Christian visitors were suspicious of what they saw. “All that razzmatazz kind of unsettles me,” one atheist reported. “We live in a culture where distraction is often misdirection – like a magician who gets you to look at his left hand while he’s disappearing something with his right. I found myself wondering why a group that liked its preacher so straightforward felt most at home in a medium of flashing lights and sound.” “I had a little problem with their arguments involving material goods and our ‘media saturated culture’ as they make their Sunday services available on your 80 GB video iPod,” the other reported. Even a church designed to appeal to cynical non-Christians failed to connect.
That’s not even getting into the theological problems with structuring church to appeal to consumers. “When, in Seeker Services, do we pull out the cross?” asks theologian William Wilimon. “When, as we’re touting all the benefits of Jesus, do we also say to them, ‘By the way, Jesus said that anyone who bought into his message would also suffer and die’?”
Doing our Sunday services better is not going to make us more effective at reaching our population. No matter how appealing our methods, Hirsch estimates that 85% of the population who will not be reached by the contemporary church growth model. Yet this is the model that is being offered by many as the solution for the North American church.
Hirsch argues that our current model of church will not produce different results. “More of the same, only better, will not solve the problems of the church,” he said. “If you want to dig a hole over there, it’s no use digging this hole deeper.”
Nor will the answers be found in leadership principles or business practices. These are not wrong in themselves, but they are not enough, nor are they characteristic of the times and places where the church has spread most effectively. Instead, they are characteristic of the times and places in which the church is in plateau or decline.
It is time to acknowledge the limits of the church growth model for churches in post-Christendom Canada. Acknowledging these limits will prompt us to explore other avenues. Theologians can help us relearn the Gospel and recapture a biblical theology of the church. Sociologists can help us learn from the explosive growth of the church within its first three centuries, and the growth of the church this century in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Missiologists can help us learn how to reach the majority of the population that are not being reached by contemporary methods.
Albert Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” The church growth model will not solve the problems of the church in post-Christendom Canada. It’s time to look elsewhere.