When the Church Pursues Worldly Success
Some athletes, fascinated with body growth, employ biological steroid enhancement. Why? Because they know it works—at least for a while. They will get bigger, stronger, and faster—for a while. But soon they discover injected steroids also bring the side effects inevitably leading to death.
Interestingly, the church is called “the body of Christ” in Scripture. When a church becomes preoccupied with “body growth” it becomes susceptible to a temptation to employ cultural steroid enhancement. But the inevitable side effects are soon manifested: worship becomes entertainment, discipleship becomes therapy, evangelism becomes self-esteem, and the gospel becomes a self-help prosperity message. Like biological steroids, cultural steroids work—for a while. The church grows numerically, applauded culturally, but it dies spiritually.
Though not growing statistically at the rate it did in previous years, the numerical size of the professing evangelical church in the USA is significant. At the same time, the waning witness of the contemporary church is painfully obvious. The documented decline of personal evangelism, life-changing discipleship, and cultural influence reveals a spiritually impotent and biblically illiterate church. So why is the church corporately—and professing Christians individually—failing in the God-given mission to be “salt and light”?
For forty-plus years, the evangelical church in the USA has fully embraced the presuppositions of the “church growth” philosophy and dutifully implemented and mainstreamed its mandated practices in life and ministry. On the one hand, this has resulted in a glamorized, marketed, yet culturally tamed church that is five miles wide and one inch deep. On the other hand, it has resulted in an inevitable reactionary, critical, and cynical church that is (at best) one inch wide while claiming to be five miles deep. In addition to offering a multitude of unfulfilled promises, there are multiple observable consequences of this ministry model.
Here are seven inevitable side effects of the “church growth” model that has infected the contemporary evangelical church in America:
- Program and personality dependency in place of persistent intercessory prayer. Instead of programs designed to facilitate church growth, there is an insatiable search for programs promising to create church growth. The absence of persistent and protracted prayer in dependence upon God is the casualty.
- Celebrity pastors with self-esteem therapy and/or success-in-life “talks” instead of biblical expository equipping and evangelistic preaching. In his 2011 Themelios article, “The Preacher’s Decalogue,” Sinclair Ferguson makes the following observation: “As an observer as well as a practitioner of preaching, I am troubled and perplexed by hearing men with wonderful equipment, humanly speaking (ability to speak, charismatic personality, and so on), who seem to be incapable of simply preaching the Scriptures. Somehow they have not first invaded and gripped them.”[i]
- Missional drift from “making disciples.” Personal evangelism is now replaced by event evangelism where there is a lot of event but little evangelism. Small group life-on-life transformational disciple making is lost to crowd attracting, life-success, and self-esteem therapy support groups.
- The disastrous novelty of our (at best, misguided and, at worst, arrogant) efforts to reinvent or reengineer Christ’s “prevailing” church that transcends all ages and cultures. While it’s true that the church must be contextualized into every situation, location, and generation, it does not need to be reinvented. Whether Kansas or Kenya, 800 or 2100 AD, the church rightly contextualized is singular in its Christ-designed and biblically revealed mission, message, ministries, and means. Christ called us to pray for laborers, not architects.
- The gravitas and reverence of the Lord’s Day gathered worship of the triune God of glory, in “spirit and truth,” has been exchanged for choreographed, superficial entertainment events. Such events are designed to attract and manipulate the emotionally empty men and women of our age while promising to fulfill their self-assessed religious needs and preferences. Seeking to please the attending “worshipper” now supplants the true objective of biblical worship—the adoration of the triune God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. One devastating result is the loss of the majesty of God that forfeits the blessing of God-centered “scattered” worship where God’s people present themselves as “living sacrifices” in all of life to the glory of God. What is lost is Trinitarian worship in “spirit and truth” by true worshippers in gathered worship which sets the thermostat of lifestyle scattered worship by which God is glorified “in whatsoever we do.”
- The church, as an outpost of the kingdom of God—inexplicably effective because of the presence and power of God—has been refabricated into another business enterprise. This, in turn, has rendered the church as just one more institution shaped by the culture in the name of relevance. Godly pastor-teachers are no longer sought to lead Christ’s church. In their place, the church now seeks CEO’s profiled by personality evaluation instruments guaranteed to produce statistical growth, instead of God-gifted pastor-teachers who are marked by gospel holiness.
- The essential commitment to Spirit-empowered and biblically defined contextualization is now perverted. Rightly understood, contextualization is the necessary effort to speak to the culture in terms that the culture can understand and to the issues it needs to hear. True contextualization has been exchanged for cultural accommodation where the church speaks only on the terms the culture affirms and the issues it allows. This is profoundly obvious as today’s church—in the name of “social justice”—rightly addresses issues that the culture applauds (e.g., sex trafficking, misogyny, racism). Yet, the same church is conspicuously silent on the blasphemous issues the culture promotes; namely, sexual perversion and promiscuity, gender autonomy, marital and familial anarchy, and the industries of death through abortion, infanticide, and assisted suicide.
Let’s be clear. The Bible in general and the book of Acts in particular records and affirms the expected and desired dynamic of statistical growth in and through gospel healthy churches. And so do we. But whenever statistical growth becomes the focused objective of a church’s ministry (instead of a valued consequence of its ministry), it is simply a matter of time until church leaders exchange biblically defined principled faithfulness for worldly defined pragmatic success. The former brings the applause of heaven. The latter is always numerically measured and prized, thinking it will bring the applause and approval of the culture.
In other words, if the world’s metrics become the ministry objective, then the biblical message we proclaim, the biblical means we are to employ, and the biblical mission we are to engage will inevitably be compromised to gain what the culture accepts, applauds, and attends. Church growth is a wonderful blessing from God, but it cannot become our god. Rather, God-exalting faithfulness is the biblical metric of divinely defined success.
That metric is not the applause of the world leading to a biblically illiterate and spiritually impotent body of Christ, but the applause of heaven—an applause that joyfully echoes into eternity whenever the lost are found and sinners are saved and discipled throughout the world by a gospel-healthy body of Christ built up, equipped, and growing by staying on mission, on message, and in ministry.
[i] Sinclair B. Ferguson, “A Preacher’s Decalogue” in Themelios 36.2 (2011), 262.
A version of this article was published as “Inevitable Side Effects of a Church Growth Ministry Model” at Reformation 21 (January 5, 2017).