Book Review: Growing God’s Church, by Gary McIntosh
Gary McIntosh, Growing God’s Church: How People Are Actually Coming to Faith Today. Baker Books, 2016. 192 pps, $15.99.
Gary McIntosh is a “church growth” guru, and has contributed a small library of books to the movement. In some ways, Growing God’s Church is just the latest in the movement’s ever-growing stack, and from one of its steadiest proponents.
But what’s unique about this book is that the typical church growth research and conclusions are employed to gently critique another “tribe” within evangelicalism: the ever-moving target often called the “missional” movement. If I could possibly say this in a good-humored, congenial way: since I belong to neither tribe—though I certainly want the best versions of both—reading this book was a bit like watching two strangers pick a pillow-fight with one another. In other words, it was a mostly satisfying experience.
The book is written out of a concerning observation: Churches have become more “missional” in their thinking and language, while somehow simultaneously becoming less evangelistic (15–16). In an effort to correct that misstep, Growing God’s Church is divided into 3 parts:
- Part 1 – The Church Today, which argues biblically that the priority of the church has always been and always should be evangelism.
- Part 2 – Faith Today, which attempts to arrive at some conclusions about how people are coming to Christ, finding churches, and staying in churches, all on the basis of research.
- Part 3 – Evangelism Today, offers some very brief suggestions, based on the arguments and findings set forth.
PLEASANT SURPRISES, FAMILIAR FLAWS
Part 1 was a pleasant surprise to encounter in a Church Growth book. Depending entirely on a biblical-theological argument, McIntosh lays forth the case that the primary mission of the church is evangelism. He does so convincingly. Without downplaying other legitimate aims—justice, various social concerns, etc. (49)—he makes clear that the evangel is the church’s greatest gift to the world, its greatest responsibility to steward. While some may quibble with certain aspects of McIntosh’s understanding of the nature and relationship between the church and the kingdom, he nevertheless espouses a refreshingly high view of the church: “our mission today is about the church” (82; see 80–87). Part 1 was helpful and challenging, particularly his work on the Gospels.
It’s the final two parts where the Trojan Horse opens up, and the hidden soldiers of pragmatism are turned loose. In the first place, the connection between the first part of the book and the latter two is assumed, rather than argued. Part 1 defends and explains evangelism. Parts 2 and 3 attempt to offer some sociological conclusions related to how evangelism is working in our own day. While the connection may seem obvious enough, the very foundation has shifted: Parts 2–3 basically leave all the gritty biblical work of Part 1 behind for the sheer sociology of what’s happening today.
To be sure, we can learn from contemporary observation. The Bible does relate to sociology. But we’re never told how to handle such observations—and particularly how to relate them to the Bible. For example, does sociological data sit under biblical data? Alongside? I’m left unsure.
Case in point: what are we to make of the fact that younger generations are apparently less concerned about a church’s theological positions than previous generations (124)? McIntosh, in fairness, encourages churches to clearly state their theological positions. But given his findings, it’s not clear why. In the same chapter, we’re also told that we should focus our efforts on the felt needs of Millennials, as well as highlight our theological positions and values (124–128). The exhortations are confusing and sometimes even conflicting. What takes precedent: felt needs or theological clarity? One is left to only guess.
LIMITS OF SOCIOLOGY
This is just one example, but it illustrates the potentially shaky grounds of applying sociological observation to any church context.
Sociological observations can offer common wisdom to the church. If I find out that unbelievers are more likely to attend my church if I take care of the skunk problem in the parking lot, then why in the world wouldn’t I take care of the skunk problem in the parking lot? Absolutely, empirical observation can identify ways God’s common grace can be leveraged to remove unnecessary hindrances to the gospel. In that sense, Growing God’s Church offers plenty of useful findings. As just one example, the book repeatedly highlights the crucial role family relationships play in evangelism. So why not “leverage” those and start our evangelistic efforts right at home?
But sociological observations have their limits, at least in the context of growing churches. At some level, all but the most extreme church growth pundits would acknowledge this. Let’s say, for example, that research showed that churches who denied the Trinity grow more rapidly than other churches. I trust most church growth advocates would say we should ignore the research.
Those extreme categories are easy enough. But somewhere between skunks in the parking lot and heresy in the pulpit, the water gets muddy. This brings me to the problem: church growth literature tends to leave the interpretation of its observations to the discernment of the reader. Unfortunately, Growing God’s Church is no exception.
Finally, lurking beneath the surface of all this is a familiar assumption. In layman’s terms, the assumption is something like, “If you do______, _______ will happen.” People will come to Christ. Churches will grow. Even in a book that defends God’s prerogative in salvation (160-161, all of chapter 4), all the signs remain connected to the damaged root.
This second flaw is pastorally dangerous—and in multiple ways. What are the pastors in the hard soils of New England to make of their own ministries, when church growth pearls inevitably yield far less (if any) results? Even more horrifying, what about those pastors for whom these pearls actually do work?
I pastor in Oklahoma, where the herds of Christians are outnumbered only by the swarms of nominal “Christians.” That creates a gigantic pool of church-goers that seems to migrate to whatever is most valued—good preaching, children’s programs, fog machines, whatever. But chasing after what works in a context like mine can become intoxicating precisely because it works. In fact, it can become so intoxicating that many pastors run right past the safety of God’s Word.
If the reader wants to take a “taste but don’t devour” approach, there’s much observational wisdom to be enjoyed from this book, even in Parts 2–3. If, on the other hand, the reader is looking to craft a ministry model from the book, then I’d encourage them to look elsewhere.
Evangelism should be our churches’ priority. But until Jesus returns, God will always give the growth—to any degree he wants, and through whatever means he chooses.