Book Review: Stealing Sheep, by William Chadwick
One of the endorsements on the first page of William Chadwick’s book Stealing Sheep sums up well the thesis of the book. “Jesus did not say, ‘Go into all the world and shift the sheep!’” Chadwick’s book is a marvelous challenge to the widespread problem of Christian mobility. I don’t mean by that mobility between cities—that’s a good thing, and can be a great tool in the hands of God to spread the Gospel. What I mean by Christian mobility is the tendency of many Christians to move regularly from church to church, even within a small geographical area, depending on which church is or is not meeting their perceived needs (or probably more appropriately in many cases, their selfish desires). This isn’t a new problem. Christians have moved around since the day you could no longer address an envelope “The Church in _____” and expect the post office to know what you’re talking about. But Chadwick takes a new turn in the discussion. Most of the blame for this kind of harmful “shifting of the sheep” lies at the feet of pastors, who are much too quick to take people into their churches who are already members of another church. Chadwick argues, and that convincingly, that the phenomenal growth that has taken place in churches who subscribe to church growth principles is little more than a rearranging of the ecclesiastical furniture. If one takes a look at the statistics, the real “kingdom growth” brought about by these churches—meaning people who have been actually converted to Christ and not just moved their memberships—has been negligible. The vast majority (and I do mean vast majority) of those who have joined megachurches are simply moving from another church.
The book is divided into three parts. Part One examines the issue of “transfer growth” as a phenomenon and accepted practice in the church. This part contains a fantastic chapter 2 on the meaning of the church and the importance and significance of church membership. Part Two is a devastating analysis of the church growth movement that uses case studies from both the United States and Australia to prove that the huge growth apparently taking place in megachurches is adding few new converts to Christ’s kingdom. Part Three is a series of chapters on how pastors can lessen the temptation to accept transfer growth in their own churches, and challenges pastors to cooperate with other ministers in the area to discourage the practice. It also contains a very good section on when transfer growth is actually helpful.
Chadwick’s argument against the church growth movement is not aimed at its roots. In fact, the author himself was a devotee of the movement in the early years, and it’s clear that he still believes the roots of the movement were fairly sound. “Make no mistake about it,” he writes on page 128. “The church growth movement had one focus: conversion growth.” They wanted to grow their churches through new converts to Christianity. It was a correct focus, Chadwick thinks, but one that soon fell into a desire simply to grow, by whatever means. Chadwick points out three principles from the works of Donald McGavran, the father of the modern church growth movement, as the seeds of this shift. The first is the Maximization Principle, which states that unproductive ministries should be canceled and their resources shifted to other more effective ministries. This is tied tightly to the Transfer of Resources principle, which says that the church’s resources, monetary and otherwise, should be apportioned based on the visible success of the ministry. And how is one to gauge that? Through Numerical Growth. By looking at numbers, you can see whether or not God is blessing a ministry. To his credit, Chadwick never impugns McGavran’s motives in articulating these principles; he simply points out that the result was disastrous.
McGavran developed all three of his principles with the best of intentions. These principles call Christians to take seriously the need to be productive and accountable stewards of the Lord’s vineyard. Yet they served as springboards for unbiblical practices. These principles in fact inspire, justify and permanently sanction sheep stealing. They create an unbalanced formula for measuring kingdom growth, and they may have given birth to the stagnation trends in the church’s current growth. (p.94)
The enchantment of transfer growth is that it can be done quickly. There are scores of small churches in almost every town in America, full of Christians who are not strongly committed to those churches and who would be willing to move at the first sign of electricity in another, more exciting place. Conversion growth, on the other hand, is exceedingly difficult and slow. Christians from other churches will flock to a new building if you install powerpoint. Non-Christians will not. Growing the church through genuine conversions is a long, time-consuming, even life-consuming process. Each individual has his own problems, his own questions, and all of those must be addressed. New converts must be carefully protected and taught, and it is impossible to draw a graph or create a paradigm model for how to grow a church through the conversion of sinners. The reality is much more a matter of the heart and personality than that. Chadwick puts it well, on page 95: “In the real world, evangelism never seems to develop that pyramidal marketing schematic of church growth seminars’ flip charts. It is a time-consuming process.”
Chapter Two of Chadwick’s book is wonderful. In it, he writes about the nature of the church and the importance of church membership. “In the New Testament,” he says on p. 37, “the term ekklesia appears some 111 times. Seventy-three times it is specifically referring to the gathering of people.” Chadwick understands clearly that the church is to be community of believers, not just a collection of them. That truth fits well into his argument because sheep stealing disrupts the deep relationships that are vital to the healthy functioning of the church. He also understands that the tendency of Christians to float around from church to church is not healthy. For the church to be what God intended it to be—indeed for Christians to be what God intended them to be—Christians must commit themselves to a church and work to build relationships there, to let the leadership and the congregation know for sure that they are there not just as consumers, but as ministers. That kind of commitment involves becoming a member of the church. “Membership is not optional. If you are in Christ, you should be a part of his body (universal) and a committed member of a congregation of believers (local). . . . God did not intend any individual to do the work of the Lord alone. We simply were never made to function outside the matrix of interdependency. We need God and we need one another,” pp.47-48. Precisely.
The first two-thirds of the book might leave the reader wondering if Chadwick believes any transfer of church membership (within a single town or area) is a good one. He tells of his experience of being on the short end of the transfer-growth stick, and one might wonder if that left him thinking that it is always wrong to ask a Christian to join a different church. That is far from the case, though. Chadwick has a very healthy view of when it is in fact necessary to allow a Christian to change churches. He calls it “rescuing sheep.” “Healthy transfer growth is about rescuing sheep. In some cases they are rescued from a church where salvation is not articulated. In other cases they are rescued from a setting where false teaching and heresy occur. And some sheep need to be rescued from abusive church settings,” p.157. In another place, he writes:
Another interesting question arises when we speak of reaching the churched lost in “historical” [i.e. historically evangelical] but now unorthodox Christian churches. Should we encourage those who become saved to leave these churches?
The easy answer is, of course we should! (p.159)
A footnote on page 177 is a good summary of his belief: “When we find ourselves in a non-Christian environment, there is no conflict with the principles of transfer growth that we have discussed.” In other words, if you find yourself in an apostate church, do not feel bad about moving to a church where the gospel is preached! And do not feel bad about encouraging those who are in unorthodox or theologically liberal churches to run as fast as they are able to one that preaches the Word of God.
The only concern that was raised as I read Chadwick’s book is on pages 122-123. Chadwick tells about how an Orthodox priest in the same town lamented that he could not compete with Chadwick’s church—the music, energy, small groups. Chadwick writes, “Stealing Constantine’s sheep would have certainly been possible. . . . Instead, because of my convictions about transfer growth, I offered this man another option.” He invited him to join a small group. The priest agreed. Chadwick writes: “Now his church can not only offer its rich traditions of faith but also meet the needs of our relationship-starved society.” It’s a strange sentence, since Chadwick seems solidly evangelical throughout the rest of the book. He even left the Roman Catholic church himself and defends the decision by calling it a “non-Christian environment.” Moreover, he recognizes that unorthodox churches “are found in the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches,” etc. Chadwick probably believes that there is a mixture of evangelical and non-evangelical churches in every denomination, and perhaps this Orthodox priest is one of the evangelicals in that church. I certainly think that’s a possibility. There are probably regenerate Roman priests and regenerate Orthodox priests. The problem is that in the Roman Catholic Church and in the Orthodox church, the errors of theology are canonized. In Protestant denominations, most of whose historical roots at least are evangelical, an evangelical pastor can lead a church in an evangelical direction. In a Roman Catholic or Orthodox church, though, an evangelical pastor does not make or even tend toward an evangelical church. The errors are shot through the very fabric of the denomination. If indeed this Orthodox priest is an evangelical, wouldn’t it be wiser to encourage him to leave the Orthodox church and its errors than to encourage him to stay in it?
All in all, this is a good book. It is precise and well-argued, and the leaders of the church growth movement would do well to read it. In fact, every pastor would do well to read it and guard against the practice of too easily allowing disgruntled Christians from other churches to join yours. Sure, you may increase your membership roles, but in allowing that sheep to run from his church, you may also be allowing him to escape exactly what God intended to use for his edification.