Monday, May 04, 2015

A word on church growth methods

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Christianity is a missionary faith. It aims to make everyone into Christ’s disciples. Thus, numerical growth is a major characteristic of the faith since its beginning. All believers are to share the gospel to everyone they know in order to increase kingdom membership. However, this is so much easier said than done.

The difficulty is not so much in how to increase numbers but in what numbers we want to increase?

It is not difficult to achieve numerical growth because there are time-proven methods that guarantee increased membership. This is the good news.

As found in various studies, there are three ingredients which are empirically demonstrated to boost membership effectively.

The first ingredient is “spiritual entrepreneur”. Most congregations that achieve exponential growth within one generation have a celebrity Senior Pastor.[1] 

The Senior Pastor is a highly popular, eloquent, and innovative person who runs the church like an entrepreneur would a company (which Presbyterian’s Elders-Deacons system does not allow). In fact, the Senior Pastor is the brand of the church, as how Steve Jobs is to Apple Inc. 

Not convinced? Well, think of all the big churches you know—most of you probably do not know anyone else from those churches except their Senior Pastor, right?[2] Just like everyone knows Steve Jobs but most has not even heard of Jon Ive, who designed Apple’s revolutionary products.  

The second ingredient is the “deployment of marketing strategies, technologies and consumerist ethos” for the church.[3] Churches that adopt this method “draw on popular culture and a consumerist logic in order to attract an audience more familiar with rock and roll, shopping malls, and self-help culture than with traditional church liturgies, hymns, or symbols.”[4] 

The relationship between church and members is viewed through the relationship between a company and its customers. The church produces messages and experiences that are consumer-driven, which is effectively presented via marketing techniques and technologies to capture the populace’s interest. 

Emphasis is placed on making the church “seeker sensitive”, which often means toning down the inherited religious symbolism and rituals. The sermon has to be TED-like, that is topical in addressing popular needs rather than expository in seeking God’s prophetic voice in the Bible.

The third ingredient, which is related to the second one, is to provide a range of services cater for the members. The church invests in programs that address the various needs of the members and allow them a few varieties to choose from. Church is structured like a shopping mall that has “something for everyone”.[5]

These three ingredients guarantee numerical growth. 

However, there is not-so-good-news. Like all methods, these three come with pitfalls as much as promises.

When churches that grow due to a celebrity Senior Pastor often cultivate a personality cult following more than a congregation that gathers for a communal spiritual journey. 

Mars Hill Church was founded in 1996 by its Senior Pastor Mark Driscoll, who is famous for his Reformed preaching. The church deployed effective marketing strategies and technologies to maximize its outreach. The church is ranked by Outreach Magazine as the third-fastest growing church in 2012.[6] At its peak, it had 14 branches with weekly attendance of 13,000. 

Yet, in 2014, Driscoll resigned. Following that, it was announced that all Mars Hill churches will dissolve by 2015.[7] Another similar example is Robert H. Schuller and his Crystal Cathedral. Therefore, it would not be too imaginative to suppose that the same would also happen to many local big churches with a celebrity Senior Pastor.

Aligning churches along the consumerist logic to be “seeker sensitive” and as centre that has “something for everyone” raises serious questions on what disciples are we making? 

The Willow Creek Community Church has congregational size of 24,000 and listed as the most influential church in America. Outside its founding Senior Pastor Bill Hybels’ office hangs a poster that says, “What is our business? Who is our customer? What does the customer consider value?” The church invested millions of dollar annually to provide many types of programs for members to participate. 

This reflects the church’s ministry philosophy, as its executive pastor Greg Hawkins said, “Participation is a big deal. We believe the more people participating in these sets of activities, with higher levels of frequency, it will produce disciples of Christ.”[8]

Then around the middle of 2000s, the church engaged an external agency to conduct a multiple year qualitative study of the church. The findings were unexpected—63% of the church’s most active and considered spiritually matured members were actually contemplating leaving the church! 

The multimillion-dollars-programs the church invested in to cater for all its members and its “seeker-friendly” culture could not retain members. The turnover rate was high. This corresponds to what we see in local “seekers sensitive” churches.

Furthermore, in a separate study, it is found that today’s young Christians (18-29 years-old) are more appreciative of liturgical religiosity: 78% preferring quiet church than loud church, 67% describe their ideal church as “classic” rather than “trendy”, and 77% like church with a sanctuary than church with an auditorium.[9]

My point is this: There is no perfect church growth method. Each comes with pitfalls and promises. As churches embrace the method of their choice, they also must prepare to brace themselves for the pitfalls. Indeed, these methods guarantee numerical growth—of personality cult followers and high turnover rate in church membership. Therefore, the difficulty is not on how to increase disciples, but what kind of disciples are we making?

Recognizing where the real difficulty lies helps us to see ‘doing church’ in a way that is freed from the shadow of surrounding churches with exponential growth. Only then can we begin to understand the bearing of disciple-making.

A pastor friend once told me that his ideal church size should be about 200 to 300 members. That is a good size to build community that is socially viable, where most people can get to know most other people as how they should be as a spiritual family. Any number beyond this should be directed for a new church plant. (This is of course another easier-said-than-done issue as small congregations have difficulty getting venue for their activity. Yet, the suggestion rightly prompts us to rethink the purpose of the church.)


[1] Scott Thumma, “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena: Their Characteristics and Cultural Context,” Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 2003, http://hirr.hartsem.edu/bookshelf/thumma_article2.html
[2]  Jeaney Yip and Susan Ainsworth, “’We aim to provide excellent service to everyone who comes to church!’: Marketing mega-churches in Singapore,” Social Compass, vol.60:4 (2013):508.
[3] Terence Chong and Daniel P.S. Goh, "Asian Pentecostalism: Revivals, Mega-Churches, and Social Engagement," in Routledge Handbook of Religions in Asia, eds. Bryan S. Turner, Oscar Salemink (Routledge, 2015), 407.
[4] Stephen Ellingson, “New Research on Megachurches: Non-denominationalism and Sectarianism,” in The New Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion, ed. Bryan S. Turner (Blackwell, 2010), 247.
[5] Thumman, Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena.
[6] Brendan Kiley, “Mars Hill Announced the “Third Fastest-Growing Church” in America,” dated 24 September 2012, The Stranger, http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2012/09/24/mars-hill-announced-at-the-third-fastest-growing-church-in-america
[7] Ruth Graham, “How a Megachurch Melts Down,” 7 November 2014, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/11/houston-mark-driscoll-megachurch-meltdown/382487/
[8] “Willow Creek Repents? Why the most influential church in America now says “We made a mistake,” 18 October 2007, Parse: Leadership Journal, http://www.christianitytoday.com/parse/2007/october/willow-creek-repents.html?paging=off
[9] Stephanie Samuel, “Study Shows Millenials Turned Off by Trendy Church Buildings, Prefer a Classic Sanctuary,” dates 14 November 2014, The Christian Post, http://www.christianpost.com/news/study-shows-millennials-turned-off-by-trendy-church-buildings-prefer-a-classic-sanctuary-129675/

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