Book Review: Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: Five Views, ed. by Paul Engle and Gary McIntosh
A friend recently read me a letter from a prominent Texas church that had just planted a satellite campus in Florida. The letter was addressed to pastors, and described the church’s strategy for getting Floridians to the new campus. Their approach? Direct mailings, free giveaways, good parking, friendly waving greeters, gourmet coffee, nicely polished wood tables, and excellent signage.
The writer was enthusiastic, even giddy, to be sharing his church’s experience as an encouragement to other pastors who longed to see their own churches succeed.
Yet that’s all he said. Not a word regarding teaching, prayer, or holiness in the lives of church members. Knowing what your consumers wanted was the first step, and finding the techniques to meet their desires was the second.
Welcome to what many call the outcome of the Church Growth movement!
If you’ve been in an ecclesiological comatose state for the past fifty years and somehow missed the Church Growth movement, let me briefly recount its history. The term "Church Growth" (CG) refers to the theories of Donald McGavran who used social research methods to discover how to grow churches. Most of his writing flowed out of work done among churches in India during the 1930s and 40s, and it became influential in the North American context in the 1950s to 80s.
Yet criticism of CG’s focus on numerical growth and its pragmatic approach to building churches has become so common that one might wonder about the need for another book. Lots of folks, maybe most, would say that the high tide of CG’s influence is past. The evangelical church in North America has moved on.
The letter my friend read to me, however, says otherwise. And I don’t think this Texas church’s approach is uncommon.
In their book Evaluating the Church Growth Movement: Five Views, editors Paul Engle and Gary McIntosh provide us with an analysis of the CG movement from five different authors. If you have not read any books from the popular multiple-views genre, the concept is simple: several authors offer an essay on the same topic, and then each author comments briefly on the others’ essays. The whole thing is assembled together like a debate in print, with each essay followed by the comments of the others. If that sounds complex, you should try writing a summary review of a book like that some time!
Elmer Towns begins the book with a straightforward apologetic for classical CG methodology. He argues that we need to employ the research methods of the social sciences to discover how to grow churches.
Craig Van Gelder briefly quibbles with CG thinking, then mainly sidesteps the issue so that he can expound the "Gospel and our Culture" view, the name taken by a group of theologians who promote the "missional church."
Charles Van Engen steps in with a supposedly "centrist" view; but, if anything, he seems to espouse relying on CG to a degree that most advocates would not—using CG as a tool to form one’s theology.
Gailyn Van Rheenan’s polite but incisive critique of CG presuppositions points to the damage that CG’s rampant pragmatism does to the authority of Scripture.
Howard Snyder rounds out the volume with an essay that calls for kingdom of God thinking instead of CG thinking. The latter, he says, leads to neglecting the social implications of the gospel.
First of all, let me suggest that one of the obvious weaknesses of this book is an exclusivistic reliance on authors whose last names begin with "Van." Not everyone can have a cool name like Van Engen, Van Gelder, or Van Rheenan, all of which make the book sound like its been translated from Dutch. I hope the series editors will be more diverse and inclusive toward authors with non-theologian sounding names in the future.
More seriously, but maybe analogously, I didn’t come away from the book feeling like I had received a balanced and useful critique of the CG movement as a whole. I found the critiques offered by several of the authors helpful, but I was also uneasy with the perspectives from which these critiques were coming. I fear that some of the authors might have a view of Scripture’s authority that will ultimately do more harm than CG pragmatism.
Consequently, I found myself conflicted in my sympathies. I agree with some of the critiques, yet I am also keenly aware of being thankful for many areas of agreement I have with CG proponents like Elmer Towns. Van Rheenan notes this too as he kindly articulates the strengths of the CG movement, including a focus on personal ministry, a missionary imperative, emphasis on evangelism, and an intention to rely on the authority of Scripture.
Put more bluntly, I disagree with Elmer Towns’ CG views, but he would be the brother I would want sitting with me in a prayer meeting or in sharing the gospel. I’m thankful to God that we agree on the inerrancy of Scripture and the necessity of repentance and faith in Christ. Those are not insignificant areas of agreement.
Interestingly, it’s Charles Van Engen, the supposed CG centrist, who provides the most shocking comments in the book, as when he suggests that we use CG theory as the lens through which we should interpret the Bible itself. He writes,
We need to give careful thought to the loci or concepts of theology itself and ask how the theological assumptions they represent need to be rethought in light of Church Growth theory. I would call this a "Church Growth theology." In what follows, I will suggest an outline of a Church Growth theology that redefines and rearticulates some of the basic biblical and theological loci and concepts of theology from the point of view of a Church Growth paradigm. That is, I am seeking to do theology "with Church Growth eyes" (125).
I appreciate Van Engen’s honesty about how he views the authority of the Bible relative to the authority of CG theory, but the implications of his thinking are breathtakingly bad. You can’t claim to be guided by Scripture if you only use it to support a theory you have already decided upon.
Van Engen’s misguided proposal aside, it is finally the anthropocentric (or man-centered) focus that is the root problem with CG theory. Van Rheenan comes closest to addressing the root of CG pragmatism when he notes its anthropocentric focus, concluding correctly that "An anthropocentric approach is by its very nature pragmatic."
That, I think, is the key takeaway from this book. If you start with man, you won’t rise above man-made theories. At the end of the day, I walked away from Evaluating the Church Growth Movement informed but mildly disappointed. The question of what churches should view as the true authority for doctrine and practice was helpfully articulated by Van Rheenan, but the other writers never seemed to fully engage with his critique.
It is at this point of the question of the source of authority for the church that the importance of clarity on the subject of Church Growth struck me hardest. Amidst all the comments and counter comments, I did distinguish outlines of two visions for the growth of churches. One view begins with man and his wisdom, ideas, efforts, and sciences. The other view begins with God—his character, his purposes, and his instructions as given to us in his self-revelation.
The CG movement is just one in a long line of movements that recommend "doing church" beginning with man. Sadly, they all end up in the wrong places. There are plenty of newer products and variations of this man-centered theme on the market. In our fallen human state, their attraction is seemingly endless.
At the end of the day, this book reminds us that we need to be constantly vigilant to look away from ourselves and toward God’s word as the only faithful guide for his church. Why does that always surprise us?