The Church Growth Movement

by Martin Murphy

Extracted from Ordained Servant vol. 8, no. 4 (October 1999)


Does anybody know where our Reformed churches are going? When Alice in Wonderland asked the cat where she ought to go the cat said “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.” Now back to my original question: Does anybody know where our Reformed churches want to get to?

God commissioned Joshua to plant the twelve tribes of Israel—the church of the Old Testament—in an area without the approval of the demographic experts and without the assistance of a “flagship” tribe (church). Joshua was not told to go to the church planting center for a seminar or the assessment center for an assessment. He was not told to listen to the experts in the field of sociology, psychology, or management experts. Joshuaís instruction may be summed up in these few words:

Only be strong and very courageous, that you may observe to do according to all the law which Moses My servant commanded you;do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may prosper wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it (Joshua 1:7-8).

Sylvester Stallone was the protagonist in the movie “Lockup.” He was unjustly imprisoned, so he tried to escape. During the escape, his partner told Stallone to turn left, but Stallone argued that he should go right. At his partners insistence, Stallone turned left and the prison guards captured him. It turned out that his partner betrayed him and was an informer for the prison officials. Making the wrong turn can be very painful or bring death itself. Is it possible that many professing Reformed ministers and ruling elders have taken the wrong turn in church leadership? Is it possible that the spirit of this modern/post-modern world has deceived Reformed ministers and ruling elders? Is it possible to discuss these possibilities? I think the answer to all three of those questions is “yes!”

There are, to my mind, many professing Reformed ministers and ruling elders who have taken a wrong turn in church leadership. The evidence demands a verdict. The evidence is that more and more professing Reformed churches have adopted the methods and the world of the church growth movement. Notice I said methods, because the church growth movement is supposed to have no definitive theological system. I made that comment in a paper Dr. Michael Horton reviewed and he quickly pointed out that they do have a theological system. Are they not all Arminian in their evangelistic views? Iíve never known a church that adopted the methodology of the church growth movement that didnít employ eclectic worship practices. Their theology drives them to pragmatism. Their pragmatism drives them toward man-centered authority and away from Godcentered authority in matters of faith and practice.

The advocates of the church growth movement have agendas that are incongruous with what the Puritans called the regulative principle and what we call a Reformed world and life view. I could cite numerous examples, but one will suffice. I have before me a report from a mission church that boasts of its womenís ministry, Promise Keepers involvement, childrenís church, small group dynamics, and drama team. In the four page report one whole page is given to “church growth patterns” which is a statistical report about increases in membership and money. If the word church was removed, it would appear that it was no more than a progress report of any entrepreneurial enterprise. The goal is success, and success is in numbers. Success in this case is the development of unbiblical programs and using doctrinal principles that are opposite of those in the confession used by that particular denomination.

The arguments in favor of the pragmatic methods always center around “stewardship.” The advocates tell us that “God requires good stewardship.” Therefore, prudence dictates the consultation of management experts to get the most for your money. Biblical stewardship is married to good sound management, but biblical stewardship follows from faithfulness. Faithfulness is what God had in mind when He sent Joshua into the land of Canaan. Joshua didnít have the option of hiring the Egyptian Army to do his fighting. Joshua had to do it Godís way and nothing else was acceptable.

The church growth movement has turned from Godís regulative principle. Denominational leaders and financiers actively promote the church growth movement through denominational and independent seminaries. The watershed effect finds its way to pastors who are constantly challenged by sessions and congregations to grow, grow, grow. The pastor sees the glitter and gold. He needs an increase in salary, so why not employ these church growth movement methods. The pastor probably thinks “its not that big of a compromise and who would be against church growth.” No Christian can be opposed to church growth, but all Christians must be opposed to church growth methodology that is not in keeping with the Word of God. Compromise is dangerous because the uncritical thinker assumes that God will not require obedience. Dr. Os Guinness reminds us that “[C]ompromise is compromise regardless of when, how, or why it happens....”

The wrong turn to the methods of the church growth movement began at the top with church leadership. Sometimes it seems so right to make the wrong turn. “We should therefore heed Originís ancient principle:Christians are free to plunder the Egyptians, but forbidden to set up a golden calf” (Dining With the Devil, p. 90).

Why are Christians so easily diverted to the right or to the left? I think it is the spirit of this modern/post-modern world. It doesnít matter which world you live in, they both have seductive powers that are equally dangerous. The end of each system denies the authority and sovereignty of God. Modernity depends on the inherent ability of rationalism to conquer the world with modernism through industry, technology and telecommunications. Postmodernity reduces intelligent human discourse to an irrational vacuum supported only by the feeling of personal interpretation. It stands to reason that if a church planter just uses the right laws of management, understands psychological needs, embraces the pietistic practices of Christianity, and makes a vow to a creed or confession that can be interpreted relative to purpose, then surely he will be successful and please God at the same time. And after all, look at what the church planter has done for God!

The temptation to follow the ways of the world is very strong indeed. So many diversions are before Godís people. The dangers of idolatry are ever present. Therefore, I think it is possible for Reformed leaders and laymen to embrace the church growth movement. But I also think it is possible for God to show them the error of their ways.

It doesn’t take a precocious genius to realize that the language of the Bible simply doesnít square with the language of the church growth movement experts. It doesnít take an intellectual giant to realize that a “user-friendly church” is nothing more than the argumentum ad populum. This argument simply appeals to public opinion. Godís Word will not change even if a hundred percent of the people vote against Him. You donít have to be a scholar to realize that churches in this movement keep their sermons brief and humorous. Anecdotal preaching reduces the sermon to a talk that ultimately entertains. You donít have to look very far to see the anti-intellectual agenda in the church growth movement.

The starting point for these discussions is the Puritan regulative principle. The Word of God must be the determining principle for any Christian belief system and the method that follows from that belief system. The church growth movement advocates must meet at the debate table willing to engage in fruitful discussion that will lead to reformation (discovery or rediscovery) of biblical truth.

The primary duty of converted souls is to offer acceptable worship to the God of our salvation—in other words God-centered worship. During the concourse of worship the law and the gospel goes forth and something happens when a soul hears the preaching of the Word of God (see 2 Corinthians 2:12-17). All the programs, all the man-centered ideas, all the managerial expertise, and all the psychological strategies that men can devise will never change Godís plan for planting churches. The glitter, gold, and glib tongue of the church growth movement may be the popular way to plant churches today, but Godís people, gracious patience, and genuine preaching is the God-centered (and Godappointed)way to plant churches.


Martin Murphy is presently serving as the pastor of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC), in York, Alabama. We thank him for permission to publish this article in Ordained Servant.