Monday, June 24, 2013

A Critique of Modern Church Growth Strategies


Volume 9 Number 2, July 2003

Prabhudas Koshy

Churches everywhere are lured into adopting modern marketing techniques in order to increase their church size. Churches are exhorted to change because the expectations and the ways of a modernised society have changed. It is said that adopting modern marketing philosophies and techniques is to the church’s advantage. Pastors nowadays seem to have lost their conviction that the way the church should grow is to keep worldly philosophies out and the truth of God’s Word in. There is a vital need to warn against the dangers of applying secular marketing methods into church ministry. These methods will subtly undermine the spiritual integrity and mission of the church.

The secular marketing philosophy of today appears to be as significant as the invention of the printing press in the time of the Reformation for the propagation of God’s truth. Just as the reformers used the printing press to promote the gospel, so the church today must use current marketing strategies. Such a comparison is misleading to say the least. One is an idea, the other an instrument. It is fallacious to compare apples with oranges.

The Reformers, in obedience to God’s Word, rejected the worldly philosophies of their times. Their ministry of the Word was governed by the Word alone—Sola Scriptura. Their battle cry was, "Back to the Bible." They resisted every vain philosophy. It is only in the Holy Scriptures that the church should find its wisdom and power.

If any lesson may be learned from the Reformation and the printing machine, it is that the church should take advantage of advances in communication techonology to promote the gospel of Christ. The internet for instance, is a great tool for the spreading of God’s truth.

The printing machine is a neutral thing and cannot on its own influence the content of Christian ministry, Modern marketing ideas however are based on a set of worldly presuppositions and principles that do not help the reformation of the church. On the contrary, it would accelerate the deformation of the church. The church instead of being an ecclesiastical institution becomes more like a business corporation with the pastor as the Chief Executive Officer. What is worse is that many churches are no longer worship places, but entertainment centres. The Church’s acceptance of the mentality and ideas of the marketing world is no reformation but deformation.

Now, let us examine three proposed marketing models for church growth.

Specialist Model

It is said that the world today looks for specialised services in all areas of life. So the church is told to go with this "specialist mentality" of the consumer world. The church must likewise specialise. The church must start to provide specialised services (e.g. phonic classes, cooking lessons, sport activities etc.) to attract the public.

Where in the Bible do we find such a church growth strategy being taught? Certainly not in the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). The Lord Jesus Christ who gave His Church the Great Commission understood this only too well. Jesus drew the multitudes. They crowded around Jesus. But what did the people want. They wanted physical healing, free food, and miracles to excite their senses. Were they interested in spiritual things?

Spiritual food is what sin-sick people need. When the Lord preached the gospel and called sinners to repent of their sins and believe on Him, they responded, "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" The multitides left Him (John 6:66). Finally they crucified Him. Jesus employed no worldly techniques to win the lost.

People have not changed. Sin has not changed. And the solution to sin remains the same. It is Jesus Christ. He is the answer to life’s problems, and He is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. The Word of God must change sinful people, and not vice versa. Jesus let the multitudes go. He did not try to win them back by softening His message. Neither did He change His method to make the gospel more attractive.

The specialist solutions that many churches dish out do not generate true spiritual growth. For example, the so-called "Christian psychology" offered by so-called church specialists or Christian counsellors have long betrayed the sufficiency of God’s Word (2 Tim 3:16-17). The church’s fascination with psychology has dulled the people to the sinfulness of sin. Peace and forgiveness are offered without any requirement for genuine spiritual renewal and repentance.

One can be sure that such crowds that congregate in specialist churches will quickly disappear as soon as God’s Word is truthfully expounded and faithfully preached. People are attracted to specialist churches with their specialised activities. Yes, the crowds will come, the pews filled, but how many come because of this: "Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life" (John 6:68)?

Supermarket Model

We are told that the church must adopt a "one stop, shop all" philosophy so that people can see the church not just as a place of worship but also a place that provides for all their physical needs. This may be an effective approach towards marketing a product in the business world, but it is a terribly destructive model to adopt for the church. The supermarket strategy operates under the principle: "the customer is sovereign." Employing such a policy would mean that the church must be customer-centred rather than God-centred.

George Barna, in his book, Marketing the Church, urges the church to adopt such a supermarket strategy. He said that there are different types of marketing that are all geared towards making "both the producer and consumer satisfied." Consumer satisfaction, then, requires the content of preaching to be adjusted according to the comfort levels of the people. The audience determines the content and character of the pulpit ministry. It goes without saying that sermons will become very diluted. In order to bring in the crowds, pastors are encouraged to preach "guilt free sermons."

The business mentality towards ministry will not enhance a church’s spiritual integrity and growth. Once such a mentality is adopted, the church will become more interested in numbers and revenue, and not truth and holiness. Demographic information, community surveys, door-to-door polls, and congregational questionnaires become the new tools. Information drawn from such sources is considered essential to developing a workable marketing plan for the church. In many seminaries, especially in the States, pastors under training are told that they cannot reach people effectively without making use of such marketing tools.

The greatest error of modern-day church growth strategies is that it denies the sovereignty of God and the sufficiency of Scripture.The modern pastor does not believe that the church would grow by means of God’s ordained method of preaching the pure Gospel and teaching the whole counsel of God.

The Great Commission is not a marketing manifesto. Preaching the Gospel without any dilution of its message is what God demands. The Apostle Paul wrote, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek" (Rom 1:16); "And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor 2:4-5); "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor 1:18); "For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men" (1 Cor 1:21-25).

Support Model

It is said that since we are living in a stressful society, the church must provide support groups and other stress-relieving programmes for all who come to church. The church must meet the "felt needs" of the people. The "felt needs" of people are things like loneliness, fear of failure, a poor self-image, depression, anger, resentment and other emotional or mental difficulties. Such difficulties are not due to sin but to the environment or to circumstances. People are counselled to look without not within, to blame others and not oneself. People are taught to think well of themselves, and made to feel good about themselves despite their sinful thoughts, feelings and behaviour. "Support groups" are formed for this reason. It is obvious that in typical church growth strategies like the support model, people’s emotional needs are taken more seriously than their real but unfelt spiritual deficiencies that Scripture addresses.

But what does the Bible teach? How can a person find the peace of God? The only way is for him to be reconciled to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. So what we need urgently is not the support groups where people sit in circles and talk about their personal struggles, but pastors and teachers who are biblically and theologically trained to analyse people’s problems in the light of Scripture and tell them where they have gone wrong, and how they can be reconciled to God who is their only source of help and comfort.

The church has the duty to support and counsel the weak but not in the ways of the world but in the ways of God. Sin must be confronted. Peace will not come until sin is dealt with. "There is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked" (Isa 48:22). "But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt. There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked" (Isa 57:20-21).

Increasingly, today’s church leaders are becoming like the leaders of the ancient Israel of Jeremiah’s time. They assure people of peace without dealing with their sins. It is a false peace that they offer. In Jeremiah 6:13-17 we read,

For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely. They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace. Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore they shall fall among them that fall: at the time that I visit them they shall be cast down, saith the LORD. Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein. Also I set watchmen over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet. But they said, We will not hearken.

The Apostle Paul wrote likewise, " And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Rom 3:17-18).

Real lasting peace exists only when one comes to Christ on His terms. The Church needs to emphasise that it is only through Christ and His promises that peace comes. "I will hear what God the LORD will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly. Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may dwell in our land. Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Ps 85:8-10). "Great peace have they which love thy law: and nothing shall offend them" (Ps 119:165). "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee. Trust ye in the LORD for ever: for in the LORD JEHOVAH is everlasting strength" (Isa 26:3). Jesus said, "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27). He also said, "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). "For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Rom 8:6). "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Phil 4:7).

Real success is not getting results at any cost. It is not prosperity, power, prominence, popularity or any other worldly notions of success. Real success in ministry is doing the will of God regardless of the consequences. The following are biblical principles for genuine church growth in these last days. They are taken from 2 Timothy 4:1-5.

(1) Remember your calling (v1)

(2) Preach the Word (v2)

(3) Be faithful in and out of season (v2)

(4) Reprove, rebuke and exhort (v2)

(5) Don’t compromise in difficult times (vv3-4)

(6) Be sober in all things (v5)

(7) Endure hardship (v5)

(8) Do the work of an evangelist (v5)

(9) Fulfil your ministry (v5)

Rev Das Koshy is the pastor of Gethsemane Bible-Presbyterian Church, and lecturer in Hebrew at the Far Eastern Bible College.


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