Where Church Growth and “Vision” Have Gone Wrong

I’ve hosted two Church conferences as a pastor of a wonderful Church in Plains, Kansas. I’ve led a couple of workshops at a larger conference, and attended many more myself. I’ve traveled to see a church “success story” and read books about many more. I’ve labored to try many of the things I’ve learned in my own ministry.

And I’ve heard many voices in a constant barrage of “What I Think You Need to Do Is…..”

So I’m an insider okay? This isn’t a traditionalist bashing the contemporary. Contemporary is my style. I love it!

This is, however, something I believe the Spirit is putting on my heart concerning the direction and focus of our ministry as churches across America. It starts with a question: (and several more will follow)

If the gates of hell cannot stand against Christ and the Church, why do we believe our own Church will fail unless we can find the next Rick Warren to lead it?

This is one of the most egregious fallacies, and most harmful trends in the Church as a whole: The idea that we have the expertise somehow, or that a particular method or organization has anything to do with the advance of God’s kingdom. As the Bible says to God, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Psalms 8:4

We have too many “Here’s the Secret to Growing a Church” type books and conferences out there. We only need one book (the Bible) and one conference (the prayer meeting). The rest are hurting more than helping. At least the way we are going about it.

Pastors and church-goers alike believe that if they can just be like Rick Warren or _______________, they’ll become huge churches with thousands of people and will bask in the admiration of others who only wish they could be as good and as big.

Satan has taken the words “Church Growth” and used them to conceal what is actually pride, selfish ambition, and a lack of faith in the power of God. It’s producing hollow, loveless, lifeless, and disheartening churches that fade when the fads die, and turn on themselves when the Sunday morning show attracts fewer people for whatever reason. With increasing regularity, churches blame and replace leaders in the same way the world replaces coaches and politicians and CEO’s. The problem is, churches are starting to replace them for the same reasons.

Ministers are not-surprisingly caught in the same stress and same issues usually reserved for such high-profile jobs in the world’s marketplace. Suddenly pastors are spending far too much of their time on administrative/marketing/public relations/team building/mission-vision statements/putting out fires/and talking during meetings instead of praying. Many Churches are rewriting by-laws to put the staff in charge of everything, and church people expect results. Numerical results. Financial results. They expect Rick Warren results.

What did the apostles concentrate on in Acts 6? Prayer and the ministry of the Word! For some strange reason, their church was growing like mad!

Let me contradict everything you’ve heard: The Bible was NOT talking about a vision statement when the scriptures said, “Where there is no vision, my people perish.” Those words had zero to do with a mission statement, vision statement, vision casting or anything of the sort. Those things come from meetings, discussions, analyzing our purpose, setting goals etc… in short they usually come from man. The same thing happens in the business world during their meetings.

Ever heard of running the church like a business? Me too. In fact, I used to believe in it.

What the Bible was talking about in Proverbs 29:18 was “prophetic vision.” Words of knowledge and direction from God. In fact, “perish” is also translated “cast off restraint.” The meaning is clear. It’s simply not healthy when God’s people don’t hear from Him.

We have so pursued “VISION,” our own ideas of where we are going, and what we should do, and the steps it will take, that we have too often left out the one thing this verse warns us against leaving out: God.

Of course, we do pray and ask God to give us “vision” but in our churches, we don’t give this any weight. If our church leaders aren’t heading the direction we believe is good, we typically do not fast and pray to seek God’s will in the matter. We simply give our opinion in the form of criticism. After all, we’ve read the books, we’ve listened to the “experts” on the radio who do not preach the Word but instead preach a Gospel of the New and Improved, a Gospel of the Organizational Theories (which by the way, are still behind the times in the business world) or a Gospel of the Great Leadership Skills.

Man centered all of it, and it is destroying the Church. We have a form of godliness but we deny its power. We don’t believe it has power unless it comes from us. If a Church fails, do we fall to our knees? Do we fast and pray? Do we continue to serve God with humble hearts and wait on the Holy Spirit to lead us at the right time?

Of course not.

Instead, we fire the leaders, or at the very least, we make life miserable for them. We hold meetings and talk to ourselves 99% of the time and give God 1% with formal prayers which again include us talking and God listening. No time is spent listening to God. He never says anything anyway.

And do we continue to serve with humble hearts? These days struggling churches look more like a sinking ship with everyone trying to scramble off and swim to a different ship. Most church growth ladies and gentlemen, comes from stealing members from other churches.

Despite the warning signs, instead of preaching the Word, we have begun to preach the Church. Our Church. Our Contemporary and modern model of Church. We have even begun to give credit to great leaders and take credit for success ourselves, instead of God. We don’t see a church with success and go home and pray. We see a church with success and try to do what they do. If we thought prayer or God mattered, we’d do it. We’d study Him instead of other churches. Our actions speak louder than our words which give hollow emphasis to prayer. We haven’t prayed all night -ever, but we spend thousands to attend the next Church conference. It’s big business these days.

Our infatuation with Church Growth has become a sin, not because growth is bad, but because we have looked for the answers in man instead of God. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we’d admit we often seek growth with wrong motives as well.

I don’t say this because of any particular situation I’ve gone through, although what I’ve seen in my own experience from time to time is consistent with this. I say this because I talk to preachers, I fellowship with other ministers, I’ve studied Church, read the books and articles, been to the conferences, hosted a few of those conferences, listened to the speakers, and I’ve looked at the Bible. And I too have the Spirit of God.

For instance, what do these verses say about our plans?

13Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 14Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” 16As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. -James 4:13-16

What does the next verse say about your Church? (hopefully nothing!)

9Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! -James 5:9

King Solomon worried about a great many things, and he tried a great many things. He settled on what he felt was the most important things. (He WAS the wisest man in history) Many ministers I know or met, wish desperately they could focus solely on the following:

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man. -Ecc 12:13

When did this suddenly become not enough? When did our focus start becoming my life or my success? When did the Church’s focus become programming with excellence, strategic planning, building programs, writing vision statements, setting goals, making 10 year plans, music styles, marketing campaigns, public relations, political issues, and more and more and more…

Do we even know how we’re doing in the “fearing God and keeping His commandments” categories? Have we made a ten year plan for that? Do we think for one second that God will NOT bless us even if all we did was fear Him, keep His commands, and teach others to do the same??

Are we that dull? That faithless?

Nothing grows a church like a changed life, and no vision statement ever written can compete with the one that is lived out in the lives of God’s people. Besides, no one wants to join a church where there is no joy, and true joy does not come from our success and accolades. Real, lasting joy is the result of a sinner saved by grace who experiences the presence of God through the Holy Spirit.

Even Heaven rejoices when one sinner repents. No word on whether Heaven cares about the particular words used in the vision statement.

So the Secret of Success for Church Growth, in my opinion, is rather simple.

Preach the Word
Live the Faith

the rest is becoming a sinful exercise in a Man-Centered Gospel if we aren’t very, very careful.

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14 thoughts on “Where Church Growth and “Vision” Have Gone Wrong

  1. “We …talk to ourselves 99% of the time and give God 1% with formal prayers which again include us talking and God listening. No time is spent listening to God. He never says anything anyway.”

    What is happening in our churches simply reflects what is happening in the people that attend them. God is shouting, we are too busy being self-reliant to listen.

    Why is it so hard to stay focused on what is good and right? At what point did the joy of serving and fellowship become such a drudgery? When did we take our eyes off Jesus?

    You don’t have to post this one, Brian. It just really struck a cord with me today.

  2. All I can say is Preach it Brother. My only problem with all the junk that has been going on is how much of the wall falls before I can start to rebuild and how much strength I will have to work with.I know Pray holds the answer,I know I’m just as much to blame as any one. Thanks for your thoughts your family and you along with our church are in our prayers until next time be safe keep up the good work.

    The Glasers

  3. What about growth as a “Christian”? Sometimes i feel that the older we get the more we act like anti christians. We start to do the old did you hear what [so & so said] or [you wont believe this]. I thought we were suppose to mature as we got older, go to church and learn how to act and become a BETTER christian.

    Why can’t we just love everybody and love god. Support each other in the work we do for god instead of critisizing (spell that) everyones work. Get up there and be a spiritual superhero, excited and on fire to tackle what satan puts in our path. Excitement is slightly contagious, negativity spreads like a california wildfire with kansas winds. Why be so relaxed and dead in church on sunday, don’t step, but JUMP out of your comfort zone and do something fun, crazy, and truely christian like for god, your church, and your friends, heck even an enemy.

    Although until our hearts and our mind really accept him it will just be another day at church 😦

    Love you brother – keep the fire burning.

  4. Thanks warrior!

    Tonight we studied 7 things that heal divisions and strife in Church, taken from I Corinthians 1 – 4. If I can remember correctly, (I know the order isn’t right) the seven were:
    1. Focus on the Cross of Christ (Because none of us are anything without it, and the cross is a message that completely humbles us and exalts God.)
    2. Preach & Teach Sound Doctrine (Constantly be teaching what we are supposed to be teaching, and avoid getting sidetracked on anything else)
    3. Fear God. (He hates the dissension thing)
    4. Do not pass judgment on people. (All of us had to repent at one time, so pray for them!)
    5. It’s God who gives the increase, not a particular person. (pretty much self-explanatory, but the Bible also says, “unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it”)
    6. Rely on the Holy Spirit’s Power instead of your own. (Pray more, listen more when you pray)
    7. Follow the example of Godly people and Live to be an example yourself. (Paul did.)

  5. Just found your site. Have mot read it all yet but what I have read seems to basic straight-forward walking with God which is life indeed.
    Trust is the Lord with all thy heart and lean not on thy own understanding. (from Proverbs 3). Practise not always easy but always worthwhile because thenHe gives us His peace which passes all our understanding.
    Will be in Plains in 2 to 2 1/2 weeks. Will try to call when there. Please tell Friends Church pastor as Mildred Bond is my Grandmother.
    from Alvin Lamb

  6. Wow-You did GOOD!
    Seriously, as a wife of a pastor for 25 years, I have been where you have been. I have wondered what we were doing wrong, I have been in a big church and I have been in a little church and am about to go to another big church where my husband will be the business administrator and eventually one of the pastors. Your right! Unless God builds the house, they labor in vain. You can talk vision, marketing, cutting edge, destiny, prosperity, and everything else but the bottom line is prayer and hearing from God and having a whole lot of the real annointing in the service. People love the genuine presence of God and the genuine gifts in operation. By the way I know a wonderful man of God who God uses mightily in the gifts. He happens to be a black pastor from Champaign, IL named Robert Smith 217-352-2092, or 217-766-4762, He doesn’t have the biggest church but if you ever need to hear from God, the man can hear. I live in Georgia and asked about having him come but his name wasn’t quite big enough. Speaking from back stage, I don’t want to speak ill, but just because a church is big doesn’t mean much. Keep hearing from God, he is obviously speaking to you. Your sister!

  7. You sound like a thinking man to me! You will probably end up leaving the “church” (as I did after over 30 years!). Once you’re into the WORD, you’ll find yourself fighting the “Church” (the man-made one). You understand that the first thing people do when they get together is MAKE RULES. These “rules” often are opposite from scripture. Good luck trying to meld them together!!!!!!! There are many good sites on the web that will help you disolve yourself from other so-called religious folk and simply be a Christian w/out the building! My desire is to see you grow individually and reach people honestly……this usually happens without a banner (ie: Baptist, Methodist, etc.). Organized religion creates its own controversy. Step away from it and step toward Jesus.

  8. Gene, I’m not going to leave the church. Or at least I won’t put it that way because the church is the body of Christ, it is his people all over the world, no matter what building they’re in or how a particular group may organize itself. The fact that a group of my brothers and sisters may organize themselves in a particular way does not make them less the church, although many times it’s true that man can get in God’s way. I have to admit, I have gotten in the way of God before as well, so I’m not giving up on everyone else yet! Take care bro!

  9. Gene, I don’t think I can get “into the Word” and conclude that I am to remove myself from involvement with a local church. In Hebrews 10, we are called to not give up on gathering – especially as we get closer to the end. It’s interesting that the opposite of not gathering is encouragement. I believe the local church is God’s provision for our growth and empowerment. There is something that happens to us there that can’t happen anywhere else. We grow to maturity as we learn to obey God and bear with one another. Where else do we do all those things we are supposed to do (or not do) to “one another”?

    Unfortunately, in the local church we come face to face with our most virulent and difficult enemy – ourselves. All that flesh in one concentrated location creates an environment and a crisis of humanity that only God can direct or decipher – and that is precisely as it should be.

    In order for us to “grow individually and reach people honestly” God’s design is for us to be in community. I believe that an important component in our “relinquishing ourselves to God” is to submit ourselves to a local body. I don’t mean in a blind submission kind of way. I mean in an informed (prayerful), intentional (directed by God), eyes wide open (knowing the risks), yielding to God kind of way. Trusting God as we topple backwards into the mosh pit. Christ was the example as always, becoming a defenseless infant in a cruel and loveless world.

    Who was He giving Himself to?

    The church is not perfect, and neither am I. We were made for each other.

  10. Agreed!!! I just found this and can’t believe there hasn’t been more feedback. Jesus gave us His vision statement a couple of millenia ago, as follows… Matthew 28:19-20 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.

  11. There is an old adage among those who talk about “hearing the voice of God” which says, “Keep doing what He last told you, until further direction arrives”. This works best if there is a constant seeking after the voice of Jesus, and an openness to the prophetic voice to herald something new for us to attend to.

    The church growth movement began as just such an initiative …a call to reconsider how the gospel needs to be presented to a world that had changed. Many listened, 10s of thousands if not more have been saved, and God has been glorified. The world keeps changing. Therefore, the means of effectively communicating the gospel and seeing the Kingdom of God come into our communities keeps changing, but we struggle to keep up. That’s evidenced by the decline in church attendance referenced. It may also be evidenced in the decline of vital spirituality and maturing disciples that is being decried.

    A good prophet sounds the alarm, heralds the word from the Lord and calls everyone to attend to it. Perhaps we’ve been preoccupied and haven’t heard or responded quickly enough. However, it’s one thing to point out the sin of an individual, and deliver a specific correction to their behaviour. It’s a very different thing to make broad sweeping statements which denounce an entire movement, a group of people or a generation. The injustice in the false accusation is staggering. 1 Timothy 5:19 exhorts us to great care in bringing accusations forward.

    It’s easy to create a straw man and assign motive to “those people” and assess “them” as “unlistening”, “prayerless”, and “disobedient”; however, when you encounter “those people” face to face as individuals before God, you’d want to have a clear prophetic rebuke from the Lord to speak as you have above. I’ve shaken the hands of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, and worked closely with some of their most trusted staff and was deeply humbled by their sincere Godliness, and their great desire to leverage their gifts and position for the glory of God. I’ve sat under the teaching and read many of the books of John Ortburg and Mark Driscoll, I’ve attended many conferences and sought out private audience with many of the presenters, all because I long to hear from the Lord in the community of the saints, and in consultation with His word. Is that prayerless and unlistening?

    I have been hearing the trumpet sounding for several years now. I’ve been with pastors of some of the largest churches in Canada as they’ve stained to see ahead, discerning that there is social change and the church must respond to it …knowing that the Spirit of God is speaking, and desiring to hear Him rightly (admittedly, we don’t do this well!) But we brought in Peter Scissero and Brad Jersak and Ben Patterson and Jim Cymbala, asking them to teach us from God’s word, so we might better hear and respond to the voice of God. All the while there has been a marked absence of growth in the church in North America, but is inviting Godly men to inspire and teach us how to ‘pray & lead better’ to be linked with prayerlessness or failing to teach the word?

    If we’re slow and stupid, we’re in good company with Jesus’ disciples. They had Jesus in the flesh and He still marvelled at how dense they were.

    I guess what I’m asking for is charity.

    The prophets must speak, and rebuke at need. And the Apostles among us need to step out boldly in new kingdom initiatives. But lets do so acknowledging the good things that God has legitimately done in the past (near and distant past) and look ahead to the great things He will yet do, because His people are easily encouraged but never satisfied.

    Terry Lee
    Lead Pastor

    Okotoks Alliance Church

  12. I hope I didn’t come across as condemning the leaders of what we call the Church Growth Movement. Honestly, when I wrote this several years ago, I wasn’t aware the movement had an official name. And my understanding today of what the Church Growth Movement was trying to accomplish was basically to break the church out of it’s self-centered ways and reach more people and more effectively preach the gospel. THAT is good. I dare say it’s awesome. But rereading my original post, I was condemning how people and leadership in local churches had begun to seek Growth primarily through the next organizational adjustment, or the next well thought out vision statement. While those things have their place, and are very important in their place, Church Growth doesn’t happen because our vision statement has been worded perfectly, anymore than our efforts can earn us salvation. Rick Warren wasn’t effective for God because He went to a conference and implemented the “next best thing.”

    When I wrote this in 2007, I had struggled as a pastor for the previous 3-4 years to get church growth to happen where I was. It was, much harder than I imagined, and although we maintained our numbers to a large degree, we struggled to grow larger, and as the pastor of the church, I caught blame occasionally. I didn’t get fired or anything, but as an inexperienced guy I wasn’t as good at Church Growth as the last guy, plus, I was smack up against the 200 barrier, which is one of the most difficult to cross. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, well-meaning and theologically correct people sometimes encourage us by saying “it’s not up to you, it’s God,” and that may be true, but when things aren’t growing, no one blames God. Rightly or wrongly on my part, I felt substantial pressure like that of a coach to get some wins and make the playoffs. In this case, that meant breaking the 200 barrier.

    Through our church ministry and various events, I was able to talk with some famous pastors, and many local pastors throughout our area. By and large, as studies have also proven, discouragement is a real issue with many local pastors. When we held a conference at our own church for “Small Churches” the discouragement on the folks who arrived was palpable. That’s why many of us go to conferences of course. We’re looking for advice, something that will work. And every conference I went to talked about vision statements, methodology, how to have a good men’s ministry, etc… and despite long board meetings coming up with a new organizational approaches, we continued to tread water. I worked hard on my preaching and our church worked hard on our events and activities, but we were missing something. We weren’t missing a vision statement, but we were missing something.

    This is what I was getting at in the above post. The key ingredient;we are looking for is not organizational, it’s spiritual. In fact, it’s the Spirit. It’s the sense, the feeling, the knowledge that you are part of what God is doing, that God is doing ministry through you. If the sense of that doesn’t permeate the church you’re in, then you need to focus there or there isn’t a mission statement in the world that matters. The letter kills, the Spirit gives life.

    So for us today, where growth IS happening and right now an addition is being built onto the building as I type this, the focus is spiritual. Yep, we’ve got a mission statement, but we are more worried right now about the 21 Days of Fasting and Prayer that begin in January, and the big evangelistic event we’re putting on in April. We spent our staff meeting Monday talking about how to effectively do our congregational prayer time during worship (a powerful part of the service) and having our worship team spend time together in their own Bible study every Sunday. These days I avoid preaching from the pulpit about church growth like the plague, and concentrate my preaching on helping each individual person in that room grow spiritually and follow God better in their personal life. It’s too easy in my opinion, to let our hopes and efforts to grow the church result in our glorification of churches. The single-minded purpose of any church must be to cast all the attention and all the glorification on Christ alone.

    And I must admit I haven’t been to a church growth conference in a few years, but somehow God has blessed us numerically, and people are getting saved anyway.

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