Jesus established his church, and pronounced that the gates of hell will not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18) In case anyone needs to be reminded, this is not a statement about the defensive strength of the church Christ is building, but rather a statement reflecting that the church will grow and prevail.
Gates are portals into an edifice, and they don’t move. The inference to be derived from this and other metaphors about the Kingdom of God (with which the church is associated), is that the Kingdom is intended to grow. So the church is intended to grow as well.
In North America, dating back to revivals in the eighteenth century, growth has been associated with an increase in the number of individuals who comprise Christian congregations, and a corresponding increase in the number of congregations as well. Growth in other areas like influence and maturity was also a part of the overall equation, but numbers have generally been particularly prominent.
In my experience as a pastor, one of the most common questions that pastors ask one another when they meet for the first time is “How big is your church?” I can even recall being a youth pastor and being required to set numerical growth targets in my annual report to the church board. Apparently, size matters – albeit in some contexts more than in others.
In the 1960s, a missionary named Donald McGavran, working in India, observed how evangelistic activity led to the conversion of groups, not merely individuals. McGavran noted sociological elements that were indicators of how likely people were to respond to invitations to become Christians.
His research led him to articulate that people are more likely to become Christians when they do not have to cross linguistic, racial, or class barriers. McGavran’s principle was based on his observation that when one influential member of a family, village, or ethnic group became a Christian, other members would often quickly follow suit, sometimes en masse.
This led him to propose that rather than doing church work in the traditional manner, focusing on a geographic area, church outreach efforts should instead target people linked by a common sociological identifier such as language or culture.
McGavran went on to found the School of World Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in California in 1965, and was influential in motivating a generation of church leaders to incorporate sociological research into church and church planting work. Churches began to strategize approaches to attract new attendees. Growth started to be about technique, because nothing in the underlying theology presented in churches was perceived to have changed.
In the 1970s, two churches were started that changed the cultural landscape of North American evangelical Christianity. First, in 1975, Bill Hybels and Dave Holmbo started Willow Creek Church in a suburb of Chicago.
In 1980, Rick Warren started Saddleback Church in a suburb of Irvine, California. Warren was motivated by a concern about factors that hindered people from coming to church. “The answers that emerged were boredom, distance from everyday life, lack of welcome for visitors, insistence on money, and inadequate programs for children.”
These new churches were designed with dissatisfied seekers in mind, those who felt their needs were not being met in traditional churches. In time, the rapid growth that these churches and others like them experienced led countless other churches to imitate their strategies. The influence extended from expansion of programming (especially programs designed to serve in part as child care so that parents could participate in church functions) to changes in liturgy, music, and even architecture.
Churches began to see themselves seemingly less as communities of like-minded believers and more as organizations devoted to providing social and spiritual services to the public. Ministries were increasingly focused not so much on the needs of the members of the church community, but rather on the unchurched members of the church’s target market demographic.
Terminology in sermons changed to make them more understandable to unchurched people, and messages shifted from traditional forms toward topic messages that presented Christian discipleship in a way that seemed more like a self-help message. The hope was that this friendlier format would attract newcomers who, it was supposed, were open to considering church were it not for traditional obstacles.
For the critics who worried that lowering the bar would have a long-term negative effect on discipleship, the reassurance was that people could continue to engage discipleship program toward maturity, and would be interested in doing so once they became familiar with the church.
The reality? It didn’t work. People who were attracted to church services did not gravitate into fuller engagement in discipleship ministries. Rather, the evidence seems to indicate that seeker-sensitive models of church encouraged members to adopt a consumerist mentality toward church, migrating away from churches that they felt were not meeting their needs toward others that had more attractive programs, children’s ministries, or better worship music. Commitment to churches overall has weakened.
Even one of the fathers of seeker-sensitive church ministry, Bill Hybels, has admitted that the model he helped to develop and champion is deeply flawed in its focus on church ministry as getting people to participate in church programs rather than equipping them to cultivate robust spiritual practices and theological maturity for themselves.
“We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become ‘self feeders.’ We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”
Looking back, it is easy to see how Donald McGavran’s observation that people were more likely to become Christians if they did not need to cross linguistic, racial, or class barriers evolved into a message that people did not need to change very much in their lives; they just need to add Jesus. The prophetic and counter-cultural dimension of the call of the gospel is difficult to find in the church growth movement or seeker-sensitive churches. The long term impact is still being felt, and will continue to be felt for decades to come.
Why is this important? My own denomination, the Mennonite Brethren, drank deeply from the well of seeker-sensitive religion. Fearing it was serving an inwardly-focused and shrinking ethnic enclave, Mennonite Brethren leaders turned to seeker-sensitive strategies in a well-intended but ill-conceived attempt to welcome people into church.
In more recent times, the theological backlash against seeker-sensitive Christianity had led to the establishment of churches that re-emphasized doctrine, often in a dogmatic, confrontational way. Some churches have worked to capitalize on their numerical “success” by creating carbon-copies of their churches — almost a franchise model of church — because they want to replicate the spiritual DNA that they believe God is blessing.
My question is this: Can’t church just be about Jesus, without all the smoke machines and mood lighting? Is worshipping (in my robe and slippers) via live stream from the comfort of my own home really worship? When did organizational excellence, critical mass, and relevance become essential indicators of church success? Would Jesus even recognize what we do as church any more? Asking for a friend.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saddleback_Church, accessed 17 September 2022.
 https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2007/october-online-only/willow-creek-repents.html, accessed 17 September 2022.