Jul 11 2012
Wesleyan/Anglican: Does Numerical Growth Equal Spiritual Growth?
I have recently begun reading a book by a professor of pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. - Some will ask, "What book?" Others will ask "What professor?" But the answers to those questions may distract from my comment below. - And, I know, some will ask, "Why are you reading a book from a prof. at Dallas Theological Seminary?" I understand, but suffice it to say that I really do expect to gain some good information from the book. However, it is too early in my reading to be able to judge how much value I will find in the book.
What I can say is that I have found in it the kind of presuppositions that many in the "church growth movement" make; the kind of presuppositions that I have to overlook and see past in order to find the value that I am hoping to find in the book. - For example, the author writes:
"I've noted over the years that some people tend to emphasize one type of growth over the other [i.e., numerical vs. spiritual]. . . .This viewpoint is unfortunate because numerical and spiritual growth should work together." - Okay, so far. - "In most cases [I do note the qualifier], churches that aren't growing numerically by reaching lost people aren't growing spiritually either. And some [notice the qualifier] churches grow numerically but not spiritually. Again, spiritual and numerical growth must complement one another and are not opposed to one another." - Again, fine enough, so far, but then . . .". . . As stated in this section and depicted in Acts, success is seen in both spiritual and numerical growth, and the latter in most cases [noting the qualifier, again] reflects the former."
I am thankful for all of the qualifiers, but the clear presupposition is that growing (i.e., larger) churches reflect more spiritual growth. It would seem, then, that most [notice my qualifier] mega-churches (in the view of the author) would be deeper, spiritually, than smaller churches. - Is this, however, what we find in reality?
Has anyone ever heard of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen? Perhaps this is why the author uses the "most cases" qualifier. - How about Willow Creek, whose self-study indicated that, while they did a great job growing numerically, they were not producing growing disciples? - And, of course, there are others that one could point to that "church growth" folks would likely hold up as positive examples, which I would argue fall short in the area of spiritual growth and making true, deep disciples of Christ.
Now, just because I have an issue with this presupposition, that does not mean that I think that smaller churches are necessarily doing a better job of growing spiritually. There are likely far more examples of smaller churches that are not growing spiritually than mega-church examples. This is so by virtue of the mere number of small churches compared to the number of mega-churches. (Though, I am of the opinion that, given the option, it is more healthy to birth new churches than it is to grow a single church to "mega-church" size.)
Of course, I would absolutely agree that those who are growing spiritual will seek to share faith with the lost. All things being equal, this should bring about numerical growth. But all things are not always equal. One has to consider population size and several other factors. One must also recognize (which many church growth folks seem not to recognize) that some people really do reject the gospel! Look at Jesus on the cross. Look at Jesus in Nazareth (from this past week's lectionary reading), and the disciples having to shake the dust from their feet. We certainly find the stories of the Church's (numerical) growth in the New Testament, but we also find examples of rejection, as well.
On the other hand, it is very clear (at least to some of us) that one can grow a "church" by giving people what they want and yet have very little to do with sound, orthodox, biblical Christian faith (again, Lakewood, and, truth be told, I could argue the case with some other well accepted, "poster child" mega-churches, as well).
I agree with the author that, in many cases, the two kinds of growth ought to go together. But I disagree with any presupposition that says that numerical growth in most cases reflects spiritual growth. I just think that there is much more to it than that, and I would not presuppose that a church that is growing numerically is growing spiritually. Maybe they are. Maybe they're not.
Still, as I indicated, this reflective of the kinds of things that I expect to have to look past in order to gain what I really do hope is much value from this book. Maybe, when I finish reading it, I will come back to give a more thorough review!
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