What next? That seems to be the question that we regularly attempt to answer. Sometimes it is asked in relationship to the next paradigm for the church. For a period of time "paradigm" was the buzz word, and we were all looking for a new one — whether we understood what "paradigm" meant or not. At other times, when we asked what next? we were simply wondering about the next program or study that would engage our hearts and minds for a time and, hopefully, impact lives and churches.
So, we began to debate whether the church should be organized in "cells" or in "traditional Sunday school classes." We then debated musical styles to the point that books were written addressing the "worship wars" that were splitting churches. We've debated whether the church is to be seeker-friendly, purpose-driven, or Kingdom-focused. But the truth is we are not seeing the results we have been praying for in terms of people being saved and discipled and the culture being transformed by the impact of the "salt and light" community.
The church growth movement has certainly had its impact, but one wonders if it is not time to move beyond the emphasis on "church growth" and focus on "Kingdom expansion." Perhaps such an emphasis will bring an absolute dependence upon God and lead to the spiritual awakening we so desperately need.
Evaluating the Church Growth Movement
I have been privileged to pastor local churches for about twenty years. If you threw in the numerous interim pastorates, it would be over twenty-two years. I have pastored churches from small rural to mega-metro. I have been both a student of church growth and have attempted to be a contributor through my writing ministry. If you are interested in a simple but intriguing book on the various strata of the church growth movement you might enjoy Like a Mighty River by Delos Miles.
In recent years, I have begun to reflect on the impact of the church growth movement and to ask the question, What next? These are simply "musings" on my part from having studied, practiced, and taught church growth for most of my ministry. My thinking has also been influenced by the privilege God has given me to preach in churches in virtually every conceivable context that our vast Convention offers. I have been challenged and enriched in my thinking by talking to fellow pastors who are asking similar questions.
The church growth movement caused us to look seriously at the mission or purpose of the church and to ask whether we are actually fulfilling that mission.
The church growth movement challenged us to look at the effectiveness or the health of the church. We were forced to look at the statistical evidence and ask the hard questions. Are we growing? Are we making a difference?
It required us to look at the components of effective churches — such as leadership, small groups, homogeneity, receptivity, and worship style.
It required the pastor and/or staff to look at their leadership style and ask about effectiveness.
We were forced to ask questions about "relevance" in terms of whether we were actually communicating effectively to those sitting in our pews and those we were trying to reach.
We were challenged to think about the different age groupings in terms of their learning styles and preferences. Thus, we had books and conferences on boomers, busters, bridgers, etc. These contributed to a greater sensitivity in both ministry and outreach.
The church growth movement has certainly taught us and challenged us to look, evaluate, think, and change. But when we are forced to ask the hard question — has it produced substantial results in terms of "growth?" — most have generally concluded that it has not done so.
If we look at our own denomination, we must confess that we have been virtually stagnant for forty-five years. We have not experienced substantial growth in terms of baptisms, Bible study, or worship attendance since the sixties. One could certainly argue that there are other criteria by which a church's health could be measured. While that is true, these are the very criteria the church growth movement focused on, and thus, by our own criteria, we have not seen the results we were seeking.
I believe that certain aspects of the church growth movement led to theological compromise. The question asked was "does it work" rather than "does it please God." When one looks at the large numbers of people who are reported as joining our church by "statement of faith," we must ask whether we have been willing to compromise our understanding of believer's baptism for growth statistics.
Much of our thinking became "mechanical" in terms of church growth. We began to seek the right method or strategy, depending on "it" to grow our church, rather than expecting God to fulfill His promise to grow His church.
It often led to the "cloning of models" rather than the application of principles. We saw an effective model and tried to plug it into our church without a due consideration of our context, gift mix, history, and heritage.
It often bred a spirit of competition rather than a strategy of cooperation. This "myopic" vision impacted both pew and pulpit. As we "marketed" the church, people wanted to know "what's in it for me." Pastors, in turn, often focused on "growing my church" and ignored cooperative strategies such as those provided by the association and Convention. Decisions were made based on "what's in it for me" rather than "what can we do together for the Kingdom."
In some cases, the church growth movement bred a CEO mentality among pastors and led to a lack of pastoral concern that saw the laity in terms of "what they can do or provide" to help me grow my church.
The greatest practical weakness of the church growth movement was that it prioritized the least significant issue in terms of church health. It suggested that we needed to change structure, style, or strategy to see the church grow. If you attempt to change one of these elements first, you will generally split the church. While some or all of these elements may need to be changed, you must first change the affection of the church. The heart of the church must be changed so that the passion of the church is to please the King and be used by Him in His Kingdom activity. This will lead to a change in thinking which will in turn allow you to evaluate and change the structure where necessary.
I believe we are seeing a movement of the Spirit which is producing a spirit of Kingdom expansion. We are being called to rediscover the power of prayer and supernatural empowering. We are being called to look beyond our own needs and desires to seek "Kingdom vision." The enormity of this task has required us to look at the absolute necessity of "Kingdom partnerships." No single church, however large, can reach "Jerusalem" much less the "ends of the earth," and therefore, if we are to be pleasing to the King, we will join together with like-minded churches to accomplish this task.
When I was called to lead Southern Baptists in the Empowering Kingdom Growth emphasis, I determined first to assist our churches in seeking the heart of God. In other words, we must align our heart with His. My prayer has been that the EKG: The Heartbeat of God material would be used by the Holy Spirit to help produce this change of heart.
Early in this ministry, I had the privilege of visiting with Nate Adams, who was in the process of writing the doctrine study entitled The Acts 1:8 Challenge. I was profoundly moved to see that God had already been at work preparing the next step in the process we were calling Empowering Kingdom Growth. The change of heart must lead to a transformation of our thinking. The Acts 1:8 study provided a tool that allowed the church to study through the book of Acts to see how the Holy Spirit empowered the early church to reach its Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
The final part of the strategic plan began to come together as I traveled across our great Convention of churches. Each state and region has its own distinctives, and therefore, Kingdom-expansion principles must be contextualized. The best partner to work with our churches in this contextualization process is our state conventions. I am pleased to tell you that I have been privileged to meet with numerous state convention staffs that have developed, or are in the process of developing, materials to assist churches in discovering the tools they need to be effective for Kingdom expansion. This strategy will allow us to link heart, head, and hand for Kingdom effectiveness.
Perhaps you are asking what a "Kingdom-focused" church would look like. I will attempt to give you some of my "musings" on that subject next month. Until then, let's determine to advance His Kingdom by His Power for His Glory!
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC national EKG strategist.