By Mike Willis
Across the country church growth seminars are conducted among denominational and liberal folks designed to teach others how to cause churches to grow. None of us is content with dead and dying churches; we want to see souls saved, those who are fallen away restored, and churches growing so that buildings must be enlarged. We are encouraged to see exhortations to greater faithfulness in proclaiming the gospel to the lost, reaching out to unsaved men and women with the gospel of the grace of God. However, this is not what is occurring in church growth seminars.
Things One Must Do To Make the Church Grow
The program for church growth can be analyzed. It’s the same for almost all of the denominations and it almost always involves the following things:
1. Generic preaching. Preaching that draws the crowds must be positive, feel-good preaching. This preaching eschews doctrinal sermons that discuss such topics as inherited depravity, impossibility of apostasy, election, grace and works, and other such weighty topics. Rather, the content of such sermons must be things that meet the needs of the audience — how to overcome depression, how to raise teenaged children, how to survive mid-life crisis, and such like topics.
The sermons must also not emphasize sin, except in vague, general terms. Everyone is against sin, so preaching must condemn generic sin, but never become specific to address such things as divorce and remarriage, immodest dress, dancing, social drinking, gambling, or other relevant issues that might leave anyone in the audience feeling condemned when they depart the worship services. If he feels condemned, he may not return for services next week.
Furthermore, the pulpit must not be used to condemn another’s religion. Sermons that expose the false doctrines taught by the Mormons, Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, and other denominations are avoided, because they may “offend” some visitor who would never return to the services. After all, this is the aim of the sermon — to present a message that attracts visitors and makes them want to come back again. Those things in the gospel that may alienate visitors or keep them from returning are systematically passed by and not preached.
As a matter of practice, many of the mega-churches simply refer to themselves as “community churches,” because all denominations are welcome there, without regard to their previous denominational affiliation, beliefs, and practices. This is done even though most community churches maintain ties to their denominational organizations.
2. A “felt needs” ministry. The mega-churches are com- mitted to the ministry of the whole man. Mega churches survey the town to see what spiritual needs they perceive and then aim the direction of their ministry toward meeting those needs. Such churches have programs of work that feature such things as: divorce recovery workshops, grief recovery, overcoming depression, how to become debt-free, aerobic exercises, church sponsored athletics, day-care, pre-school through sixth grade elementary schools, and such like things. Some churches have large restaurants so that a family can stop at the church building to pick up the children from day-care and school, stay for basketball practice and aerobics, attend a workshop on finances, and have a late supper, all on the church premises. That’s the Wal-mart way!
3. Contemporary worship. Church growth seminars ad- dress the distaste that the baby-boomers have for traditional worship. Consequently contemporary worship services are developed to attract the baby-boomers. To keep from driving away traditional families, whose contributions and support are necessary to keep the doors open, many mega-churches have two separate worship services. The traditional worship services feature songs like “Amazing Grace,” “Just As I Am,” “Be With Me Lord,” and other timeless hymns sung to the traditional melodies, preaching, prayer, observance of the Lord’s supper, and giving. The contemporary worship services are a bit different. The Sunday morning presentation may present the message in drama, rather than in sermon. A special singing presentation is frequently used, featuring singing that is more contemporary (the range of music may be from Bluegrass gospel, to Southern gospel, to Contemporary gospel, to Rock gospel, depending upon which is most attractive to the community). The presentation is professional and the audience listens, rather than participating, showing its appreciation by clapping and hand raising. The assembly has a decidedly Pentecostal flavor with a Baptist doctrinal emphasis (salvation by faith only, once saved-always saved). The preacher may present his message in a sports shirt, casual slacks, and sneakers. The audience may be seated in a circle of chairs or in a circle sitting on the floor. Both are designed to present the casual approach toward worship. The members who attend may show up wearing jeans and a T-shirt or shorts. The audience may be drinking coffee and eating donuts while the lesson is presented.
The role of women in the public services is more pronounced than in the traditional services. Women are used as public readers of Scripture, to make the announcements, to serve the Lord’s supper, to usher, and to serve in other public roles (including preaching). They are added to the “board of deacons” and appointed as elders and bishops.
Those who raise protest against the changes they witness in worship are hide-bound traditionalists whose old-fogey ways stifle the church’s ability to adjust to the changing times in order to reach out to the modern community.
The Pragmatic Defense
The defense of this change is simple: it works. And, who can deny its success? The mega-churches have thousands in attendance and are constantly growing.
The Temptation To Mimic The Denominations
Witnessing the “success” of the mega-churches, there is a great temptation for Christians to mimic church growth practices. Consider some of the things that we can specifically identify happening among us:
1. Change in content of the preaching. The content of gospel preaching is changing in many churches. Its thrust is distinctly positive (that is, these churches eliminate from their preaching those things that may cause a visitor to be offended and not return). Distinctive gospel sermons that have a heavy theological content are eliminated; the one- church theme is removed; the identifying marks of the New Testament church are not preached; exposing the doctrinal apostasies of the denominations is condemned; preaching that specifically condemns immodest dress is eliminated (one can preach against immodest dress so long as he does not define what it is); etc.
Trying to avoid the prejudice the world holds toward the churches of Christ, some have removed “church of Christ” from their meeting house. Signs on the meeting house that say “Christians Meet Here” leave the same impression on the general public as “Community Church” does. This says to the general public, “This is an inter-denominational group, where I can be a member without regard to my denominational ties.”
2. “Felt needs ministry.” Our most conservative liberal brethren (the new “antis”)are fighting a battle for their lives to stave off the social gospel of the felt needs ministry. They are so compromised by their acceptance of fellow- ship halls and the church support of human institutions (colleges, hospitals, orphan homes, old folks homes, etc.) that they have little hope of success. Among ourselves, already we are seeing meetings designed to preach about time management, depression, being debt free, and other such topics that indicate significant movements in the thrust of gospel preaching.
How Can We Compete?
As we witness the growth of the mega-churches, we are tempted to ask, “How can we compete with them?” Our little band of disciples that meets in a plain-jane building in a middle-class neighborhood has little chance of competing with the mega-church with its extravagant building on prime real estate. Why would anyone want to be a member of the church, when he can go over to the mega-church and hear a professional singing group, listen to a dynamic speaker, attend the supper served after services, watch the drama skit, and never be condemned for immodest dress, lack of attendance, or practically anything else in his life?
We tend to forget that this problem has been with the saints since the first century. That little band of disciples in Jerusalem (after the dispersion of Acts 8) had little to offer in comparison with the services at the Jewish temple. They met in the home of one of the disciples. Just across town on Mount Zion, was a beautiful Temple. Its priests were dressed in priestly vestments. The singing was conducted by the sons of Asaph and sons of Korah, professional choirs. The pageantry and ceremony of their public worship were majestic. Their feasts were festive, not solemn and doleful. How could 20-25 disciples meeting in the house of one of the members compete with the Jewish Temple?
The situation was even worse in pagan cities such as Corinth. The pagan worship was also associated with an impressive temple complex. Their worship included banquets and feasts that tended to drunkenness and excess. What’s more, some of the fertility cults had priestesses that committed fornication with the votaries. How could a little band of disciples compete with the pagan temples for the hearts of those young men and women faced with the choice of Christianity or paganism?
Lest anyone think our situation is so unique that we must make some changes to attract the people in order for the church to grow, we need to be reminded of what circumstances our brethren before us faced. Despite the odds that were against those brethren, look at what happened: the Jewish Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70 never to be rebuilt and those fertility cults of the first century have passed from the contemporary scene and are barely known, except by a few archaeologists and historians. But the church of Jesus Christ is alive and well! Let us never be tempted by the appeal of modern church growth seminars to change the church of Jesus Christ into another religion built according to the wisdom of men.
If it should be our lot to preach in a time and place similar to Noah, let us be content to stand alone as a preacher of righteousness, not compromising the gospel to appeal to a generation of hell-bound men!