Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Open Letter to the Growthinistas, Part 1

Eighty percent of church plants fail.

I hate that quote.

Hate it, hate it, hate it.

I hate it with perfect hatred, mostly because it betrays a fundamental flaw in modern thinking - a fatal flaw which manifests mainly in how most people (and by "people" I mean Church Growth Experts® and Wannabe Church GrowersTM) view the relative terms "success" and "failure."

This flawed thinking pervades even the very movement that I love and identify with.

Bottom-line, "success" equals nickels 'n' noses.


At the end of the day, that's what constitutes "fruit" to these guys.

About two years ago on another blog that I initially interacted on rather regularly, a junta of Growthinistas hijacked the discussion and pretty much verbatim decreed that if your church isn't growing numerically, then just pack up and go take up yak herding. You'd be better off, and so would your community - since, after all, without a certain critical mass no gathering of people can properly be considered a real church, by gum...

Since that time, I've encountered gobs of stuff from fellows like-minded to the abovementioned coterie of Searcy acolytes, and the bottom line is always the same: Taking a cue from Octavian, the driving maxim is EXPAND OR DIE.

There are no other options.

Which, when you boil away the attempted spiritualspeak carefully wrapped around the concept, and gaze unflinchingly at the underlying foundational principle of what constitutes "success" in the arena of the church, you find that what they mean is: nickles 'n' noses.

Oh, there's a loud hue and cry that that's not really what it's about... you'll hear:

We're in a WAR, man! We're supposed to be reaching AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE! Where am I missing it?

It's just the Great Commission, dude!

If the Spirit's really moving, then people will be drawn to it!


For those who fall into this persuasion, "results" (again, manifested ultimately as nickels 'n' noses) are the raison d'être of the church. And thus, those who are showing results are to be commended for the results' sake, doctrinal or praxis issues aside. The sine qua non for those who hold this thinking is growth - everything else is of secondary importance.

Thus, the heroes of the faith for Growthinistas, those who they admire and look up to and seek before all things to emulate, are those whose churches experience phenominal, explosive growth.

I have heard one pastor's stuff pushed so often in the last few years, I cringe whenever I hear his name or anything relating to a "journey." On the recommendation of a brother-in-arms who I otherwise respect, I signed up for this particular pastor's "Church Leader Insights" newsletter. And I grieve when even those who ostensibly identify with the Calvary Chapel movement laud the thinking and methodology of this particular fellow, whose sermons (which are guaranteed to cause explosive growth in your church!) you can purchase (for a modest fee), including the not-at-all-nickels-'n'-noses-oriented-how-silly-of-you-to-even-mention-it-you-ignorant-boob classic, The Stewardship Seminar, which promises:

First time givers are taking a leap of faith! How should you respond? What can you do to help them give again? Discover how to turn first time givers into faithful givers in this innovative 3 disc Stewardship Seminar with Resource CD.

...and which you can download for the modest, TBN-Praiseathon-rivalling fee of only $47.

...and I though John Avanzini was bad.

But since this fellow's church is growing, and since that's the be-all-end-all for far too many of my compatriots in ministry, all else can be forgiven.

And believe me: the "Stewardship Seminar" stuff I quoted above is probably among the least troubling thing I've read that this particular dude's peddling.

And on the list goes; so long as a pastor is an effective rainmaker and can catalyze numerical growth, that's the primary and enduring test of fruitfulness, and all else can be forgiven and explained away.

On a listserv for pastors that I also used to participate in rather regularly, a discussion arose about a certain Southern California pastor who recently called Syria a "great nation," over why nobody should really ever criticize him since, after all, "his church has the largest number of conversions ever!!!"

Again: Nickels 'n' Noses. So long as you have those two, you have and automatic pass on all else.

Therefore, when seeking to plant a church in a given community, what are consulted are things like:

  • demographics

  • cost-benefit analyses

  • strategic forecasts

  • etc.

One pastor, who ostensibly identifies with the Calvary Chapel movement, went so far on his blog several months ago as to advocate planting churches primarily in larger population centers (to the explicit exclusion of all else), specifically because that's how you'll get maximum bang-for-buck.

So, back to the quote I opened this post with:

Eighty percent of church plants fail.

I believe, in the strongest possible terms, that this quote was stated from the perspective of someone who is, however marginally, aligned with the Growthinista perspective. And I believe that many church plants do fail - in the sense of giving up, closing the doors, and pulling stakes - as a direct result of Growthism. That is, since we don't have multiplied thousands (or at least a couple hundred) noses and the axiomatic abundance of nickels attendant thereunto after our second whole year of existence, well... we've failed, so let's try something else somewhere else.

Yak herding, for instance.

I cannot even begin to express my heartache that this attitude has gained ascendancy not only in the Church at large, but even within certain (and very influential) elements within my own Movement.

I defy the very underlying premise which girds the concept inherent in the quote.

What is a failed church plant? Can church plants fail?

Yes, they can.

The fail if:

  • the Word is not taught

  • the Lord is not exalted

  • the Spirit is not present to minister

  • the people are not encouraged to grow in Christ

All else is in fact secondary at best - including nickels and noses.

Therefore, even a "successful" church plant can be considered a failure - large numbers and ever-expanding budgets notwithstanding.

Likewise, even an "unsuccessful" church plant - even one where the local body ultimately decides after long, agonized seeking of the Lord's face to disband and become part of other fellowships - can be (and should be!) considered a success.

I believe that what we need, now more than ever, is men willing to fail spectacularly for the sake of the Kingdom.

If the most effective method for expanding the Kingdom is church planting (and I tend to agree that it is), then our push should be for sending more men out with the express purpose of scattering the seed of the Word with little if any regard for personal empire building. In my neck of the woods here on the Lakeshore, I'd rather see a hundred "tiny" churches then one church of thousands. I'd rather see a hundred men go out with eternity stamped on their eyes and hearts, reaching into their several communities with the Word of Life, ready and willing to plant the flag of the King and die there if necessary fighting back the encroaching darkness - regardless of any man-centered and man-invented criteria of "success."

If any of those churches grow to several hundred or even several thousand - all the better. If they don't - great, too! The few dozen families who partake in the life of each church plant learn to grow in grace and in the Word stronger than if they hadn't been reached at all in the first place.

And what if a church plant, after seeking the Lord's face, realizing that their call to be an individual, local expression of the Body of Christ has come to an end and that they should graciously close down and disperse into the larger Body, closes their doors in the same humble obedience that led them to open them in the first place? Has that church plant really failed?

Depends, I suppose, on what criteria were used to determine that they should fold up.

Pastors are called to be stewards of God's flock. The pastor is never and should never try to be the focus of the life of the Body. And I don't read anywhere in the Bible that it is said that it is required of a steward to be "successful." Or that it is required of a steward to be a "rainmaker."

It isn't even recorded that it is required of a steward that he be found "fruitful".

Instead, I read that it is required of a steward that he be found faithful.

This is the key, critical difference between a shepherd and a hireling.

The hireling runs away when things turn difficult.

The shepherd stays with the sheep until (if necessary) the bitter end.

One of my heroes in the faith, and rolemodels for ministry, is pastor Bill Woolley, shepherd of a "tiny" Calvary Chapel in the Upper Penninsula. Bill has faithfully labored in the field the Lord called him almost for more years than many of the newbreed Growthinistas have been alive, and has experienced little but setback, heartache, betrayal, and pain... and the fellowship there has never grown into anything even remotely resembling a "successful" church plant (by Growthist standards). Yet he keeps plowing. Every year he struggles with the temptation to quit... and every year the Lord basically nails him on it and lets him know in no uncedrtain terms that for him to quit would be an act of disobedience to his calling. So he keeps faithfully plowing.

Bill will never speak at a national conference - he's not "successful" enough.

Bill will never have a national "ministry" selling his sermon series at $40 a pop.

Very, very few of my fellow pastors would look up to him as a model of ministerial success.

More's the pity.

I can think of very few who would continue to stand in the face of the adversity that Bill's been called to endure. I have heard large-ministry, successful pastors who I actually like and listen to pretty much admit the same.

I made God a deal when I came to {x city}, that I'd give Him a year to do "something," then I'd go try elsewhere...

After a year, I called back to {the CCOF coordinator of the time} complaining about how nothing was happening, and he said, "hey, come on back, then. I've got a dozen guys who are dying for the chance to serve God in a small church like yours..."

If we don't have men who are willing to plant churches and plow in fields that will - let's face it - never produce the "successful" "fruit" that the Growthinistas pine after, then the thousands upon thousands of souls who will - agian, let's face it - never be reached by a "successful" megachurch will continue to go unreached for the Kingdom.

I believe (and here's the bottom line of this particular Open Letter) that both ends of the spectrum are called for and needed in the larger Body of Christ: the Big Successful Churches, and the teeny tiny church plants that "could."

Some will only be reached by large churches.

Some will only be reached by small churches.

Some churches, by the sovereign grace of God, are blessed with (numeric) growth.

Some churches, by the sovereign grace of God, are blessed with (numeric) non-growth.

Let each be faithful to serve God in whatever capacity He choses - the experts and pundits be {mild Mark Driscoll colorful language omitted}.


Daniel Fusco said...

Great stinkin post Mike.

Much love to you

I know you're still nervous about my Devils though.


chad myhre said...

WOW! (and I mean it!)

Tim Burns said...

Mike -
Great article. Thanks for laying it out there. Dallas Stars ain't too far behind. :)

Mike from Oregon said...

Thanks Mike, great post, and needed to be said. For some time I have lamented the emphasis on numbers that has infected our movement.

Planting churches is the model we see in the New Testament for expanding the kingdom. There are many, many places in rural America where solid Bible teaching churches do not exist. A good church will always have a greater effect on a community than any radio program.

What we see today is elevation of personalities where the focus is on more. More radios stations, more multi sites, all in the name of the gospel. You can longer hear the beautiful sound of their feet.

I think you have identified our value system. We value large numbers, fast growth, and all the influence which that platform provides. We really don't value faithfulness.

It is sobering in light of Jesus' words. Those who seek to find their lives will lose them, those who lose them for Jesus' sake will find them.

Jon Clayton said...

Outstanding post! Shook me right out of my pity party. Thanks

Papias said...

Mike, Good post.

While the Growthinistas value numbers and nickels, I also have to wonder if that is also the state of the average "church goer" as well. Maybe at certain stages in life we want a larger or a smaller group. Larger groups generally have safety in numbers, while smaller groups can also hurt an individual, leaving nowhere "inside the walls" to turn.

Not to say that mega chruches have nothing but inch deep believers, nor to say that all small churches are therefore more spiritual. Either way, we have to watch out that our small group doesn't become the uber-spiritual, looking down on those who attend the nearest Super-Church-Mart.

For those pastoring, I think there is a sort of validation(within himself) with having a large group attending your church. The sense that "God did call me to the ministry, look at all the people He brings every week." With a pastor in a smaller church needs to reassess his calling, as you said that Bill does every year or so.

mike macon said...

Daniel - while I readily admit that Brodeur is The Man, I anticipate a Wings-Senators Cup round this year...

Chad - remember that "WOW" spelled backwards is... ah... nevermind.

Tim - darn that Turco. But at 18 points behind... ;D

Mike - Lord willing, we'll begin to value and celebrate faithfulness again.

Jon - Oh, that pity party... ;D

Paps - You're anticipating OLTTG Part 2. ;D In other words - great point.

Bryon Mondok said...

good post. i like your style.

Jeffery said...

Good post, Mike. Good post.

Ryan said...


great post...very well written.

It's refrain from that perspective because it's the pervading thought of most we encounter.

Whether it be collegues at conferences, visitors to our churches, regular attenders of our churches, people in the community, etc.

Everyone seems to judge the "success" of a church based upon one really shallow criteria.


So that leaves us with a choice...listen to the jerks or listen to Jesus.

hmm...tough choice :)

A few years back a lady in our community referred to our church as the "little church that does big things."

I liked that a lot...

Here is an article I wrote on my blog recently that dovetails with yours pretty well.

blessings my friend!

mike macon said...

Ryan - I'd mentioned this in my comment over at the Wordpress mirror of this blog - but I'd read your blogpost as soon as you'd published it. Good stuff, and spot-on.

Anita/Wife/Mom/Nonnie/Child of God said...

What a great word for me today! Thank you Pastor Mike. We are about to celebrate our 7th year anniversary here in Oxford, England. We are a tiny little fellowship but rich in love. Our pastor is giving himself away for Jesus and we count it a privilege to work along side him. God bless you for sharing this and encouraging many.

Anonymous said...

your passion is appears that you are an advocate for home fellowships. The churches I have been apart of have more or less used home fellowships for just that "fellowship". No problem! In fact, it is a very good thing; but the next gear would be to utilize the setting as an evangelistic beach head. The JW's have ruined the door to door witnessing IMO!

Joel said...

Thanks. I have been thinking about this (and blogging about this) for a few days now.

I linked to this on my blog...