The Church Growth Movement?


I Corinthians 1:21-25 – “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.”

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Over the past twenty years or so a great movement has swept the churches of America and, in most cases, it has been almost unrealized by the members. This movement, known as the Church Growth Movement, is extremely influential in America’s churches today. Most of the people involved are not liberals or modernists, but conservative evangelicals. What is this great movement all about? Where did it come from? What are some things it is leading our churches to do? In this message we shall attempt to answer these questions. One of the purposes of this message is to prepare people by informing them more fully concerning the Church Growth Movement. In an effort to achieve this purpose let us look first at a…


The Church Growth Movement is a philosophy and a methodology of how a church should do its work in this world. It believes that the biblical method for doing God’s work is old-fashioned and worn out, and that we need a radical new approach to worship and evangelism. It claims that we need to use new and innovative ways to get unbelievers to come to church, and subscribe to the Gospel. Basically the Church Growth Movement borrows the principles of the business world and applies them to the church. It reasons that if a marketing approach works for McDonald’s, it ought to work for evangelism and church growth. This thinking says that the church should relate to people as consumers, and should strive to meet their felt needs. It teaches churches to package the Gospel as a product which will be attractive to the consumer. The Church Growth Movement wants the best marketing and management to be used in doing the work of the church. What the church has to offer must be marketed.

George Barna, the leading thinker in the Church Growth Movement, defines in his book, MARKETING THE CHURCH, what he means by marketing when he says, “Marketing involves research, product positioning, strategic planning, advertising, public relations… The basic thrust of marketing is simple: to coordinate related activities intended to make both the producer and consumer satisfied…” The Church Growth Movement tells us that we have to make the church and the Gospel attractive to the man outside so he’ll want to come in. It designs the church services chiefly for unbelievers rather than for believers, and calls for a complete overhauling of each church in order to make it more appealing to unbelievers. The driving force in the Church Growth Movement is, what do the unchurched want from the church? Consumer satisfaction is the goal. Preaching must be “audience driven.” This means the preacher must find out what the public wants to hear and then preach that in a market where others are trying to do the same. Churches are urged to create an exciting atmosphere for worship, exciting to the unsaved that the church is trying to reach. The goal of the Church Growth Movement in worship services is to provide non-Christians with an agreeable, inoffensive environment in the church services.

The Church Growth Movement began as a serious movement at Fuller Theological Seminary in California between 1965 and 1971. Three of the more prominent leaders in the movement over the past ten years or so include Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church of South Barrington, Illinois which has supposedly been the fastest growing church in America over the last few years. His church is nondenominational, sits on a fourteen acre campus and enjoys huge weekly attendance in its services. The leading thinker of the Church Growth Movement, to this point at least, is George Barna who has written at least two best selling books on the movement, MARKETING THE CHURCH and USER FRIENDLY CHURCHES. A third leader in the movement is Doug Murren, pastor of the Eastside Foursquare Church in Kirkland, WA, who wrote the book, THE BABY BOOMERANG.

A brief summary of the philosophy of the Church Growth Movement would go something like this: The church is a business. Marketing is necessary for a business to operate successfully. The Bible is one of the world’s great marketing texts. We should think of our church, not as a religious meeting place, but as a service agency that exists to satisfy people’s needs. A very important part of the philosophy of the Church Growth Movement is the strong belief that numbers equal success in the Lord’s work. One person who has analyzed the Church Growth Movement has said that with them, “More bodies, bucks and buildings equal success.” In Church Growth thinking, bigness is used as the standard of success in the Lord’s work. Big means success. Small means failure. The bigger the church, the more spiritual and better it is. Some Church Growth advocates plainly state that if a pastor does not double or triple his attendance each year, he is not being faithful to his task, and spiritually, he is probably not right with God. George Barna states that a successful church is a church that has at least a ten percent annual growth rate.

The Church Growth Movement encourages the production of what are called megachurches, huge congregations with sprawling buildings and complex programs. These megachurches are held up by them as the models of successful churches. Fifteen thousand attend the weekly services of the Willow Creek Community Church. One writer has said that 20 years ago there were 100 megachurches in the U.S. Now there are more than 4,000. Most evangelical churches today are using Church Growth Movement principles to gain greater numbers and build larger buildings. This movement places great pressure on pastors to grow large churches, bring in great numbers and count lots of conversions, but here is a startling fact; ninety percent of the churches in America today have less than 200 members. Therefore, by the standards of the Church Growth Movement most churches and most pastors today are failures.

Still another thing involved in the philosophy of the Church Growth Movement is pragmatism. Whatever works in doing God’s work is right. Whatever methods get bigger crowds and more results are seen as good. The end justifies the means with the Church Growth Movement. One time I was speaking with a pastor at a pastors conference and I mentioned to him the strange methods a certain pastor had been using in his church. The man I was speaking to responded, “Hey, whatever works! If it gets people in, don’t knock it!” There are some key terms which Church Growth advocates often use and by which one can know that a person has been infected by the Church Growth mentality. One of these terms is “user friendly” and sometimes the same concept is stated as “seeker sensitive.” The whole point of all the new methods advocated by the Church Growth Movement is to make the church “user friendly.” “User friendly” is a term from the computer industry which describes software which is easy enough for a novice to operate. When applied to a church “user friendly” means a ministry that is inoffensive and easygoing and nonconfrontational. During the month of March the Lane Avenue Baptist Church on 87th street had positioned on its church sign the term “user friendly.”

Another term which characterizes the language of the Church Growth Movement is “felt needs.” The Church Growth Movement appeals to what they call the felt needs of the community in which the church is located. Felt needs include things like loneliness, fear, poor self-esteem, depression, etc. The Church Growth Movement gears the work of the church to what people in the community are interested in. These people think we must appeal to the sinner’s felt needs so he will be interested in the church and in the Gospel.

A third term important in Church Growth thinking is “targeting audiences.” This term is borrowed from the business world and means that a church must target a specific audience, a certain kind of person it wants to reach and then focus its main efforts on that audience. George Barna teaches that this basic concept of marketing is necessary if the church is to make any headway in the 90’s, and unless we package and promote the Gospel in a way our target audience can appreciate, we will be left without an audience. According to the Church Growth people the most important group to be targeted by the churches today is what they call the Baby Boomers. These are people who were born between 1945 and 1961. The second most important group to be targeted by the churches today is what they call the Baby Busters, people born after 1961. I know of a pastor of a large Baptist church who told the family of an elderly member of his church who had died that he did not preach funerals of anyone over 50 years of age. His church targeted Baby Boomers and he dealt only with them. He had an assistant pastor who took care of funerals of people who were not Baby Boomers.

A second thing we want to consider in the examination of the Church Growth Movement is…


Much of the methodology of the Church Growth Movement comes from the Willow Creek Community Church where Bill Hybels is pastor. That is why Church Growth methodology is sometimes referred to as Willow Creek methodology. Many pastors and churches today are little more than clones of Bill Hybels and Willow Creek Church. One of the prime methods of the Church Growth Movement is finding out what the community around the church wants from the church. The Church Growth Movement says that a church must discover the felt needs of its community and then meet those needs through various innovative programs and activities. In order to accomplish this they use community surveys in which they ask people just what they want the church to provide for them and then they try to provide it. Here are some questions asked in a survey recently made by the St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in our area:

2. Please check the programs that would best serve your family: (eleven choices are offered including child care, parents’ day out and summer day care.)

4. (For adults) Please check the program that would best serve your family: (five choices are given including Prime Timers social time with activities and meal, senior day care and young mothers club).

5. Worship. Please check the programs that would best serve your family: (five choices are given including Sunday AM, Sunday PM, Saturday evening and other).

A second method the Church Growth Movement advocates is to greatly revise or replace preaching altogether. Instead of powerful doctrinal and exegetical preaching, the Church Growth Movement calls for lightweight, shallow, entertaining talks which they call “power preaching” like a power lunch or a power nap. They say that if you must have a sermon, keep it brief and amusing. Keep everyone entertained and never be authoritative. Preaching is downplayed and is more and more being replaced by new methods such as religious dance, Christian comedy (whatever that is), psychology, video tapes, TV talk show formats, rap sessions and all kinds of entertainment.

A third method popularly advocated by the Church Growth Movement is the use of drama as worship. These people use drama either to prepare for the preaching or more and more often to replace it altogether. The drama leader in Bill Hybels’ church once said, “With drama we’re trying to give life and excitement to the Gospel.”

Still another method popular in Church Growth practice is using contemporary music in worship. Baby Boomers understand and like contemporary rock and popular music so the church should use it to try to speak to them. This music has a very popular style and the singer is backed up by canned accompaniment often featuring drums, bass, a heavy beat and what we used to call a worldly, night club or honky-tonk sound. The music advocated by the Church Growth Movement also includes shallow, repetitive and boring ditties called “praise choruses” the words of which are shown with an overhead projector rather than being found in a hymnbook. Music is a Trojan horse that is bringing all kinds of errors into our churches, number one of which is the world itself. Contemporary music is the area in which the Church Growth Movement is already gaining an entrance into our independent Sovereign Grace Baptist churches!

A sixth method popular with those in the Church Growth Movement is making everything in the church services user friendly. Nothing must make the visitors uncomfortable so the first thing they do is drop all dress codes and everybody wears jeans or shorts and T-shirts or whatever they are comfortable wearing. The preaching should be happy, entertaining, nonconfrontational and inoffensive to the target audience. Preaching for more than twenty minutes, preaching doctrine and heavy subjects like sin and hell and blood atonement are out of place since they create a threatening atmosphere. The other day I read about a preacher who clipped the following ad from the church page of the Saturday newspaper where he lived:

1. “There is no fire and brimstone here. No Bible thumping. Just practical, witty messages.”

2. “You won’t hear people threatened with hell or referred to as sinners. The goal is to make them feel welcome not drive them away.”

3. “Preaching here doesn’t sound like preaching…it breaks all the stereotypes.”

Another very popular method used by Church Growth people is changing the name of the church to remove any denominational identification. Denominations speak of doctrinal differences and these are unpleasant to Baby Boomers. This is being done on a wide scale today with some even removing the word church from their names.

Last summer on our vacation and after coming home we made note of the names of churches that we saw and the influence of the Church Growth Movement can be seen in those that we wrote down: Celebration Center, Jubilee Christian Center, Christian Life Center, Deliverance Temple, Grace Fellowship Chapel and Victory Christian Center. Let us look in the last place in this message at…


The first and greatest error of this movement is in the fact that it deemphasizes preaching. Preaching suffers greatly. Preaching is no longer central in such churches. They minimize preaching. Many churches now have no preaching at all, just music, multimedia presentations, drama, rap sessions, etc. But according to God’s holy Word, preaching is God’s one method of producing church growth. Always has been! Always will be! Turn in your Bibles to I Corinthians 1:21. “For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of (not drama, not videos, not rock or contemporary music, not talk show discussions or rap sessions but) preaching to save them that believe.” According to God’s Word we don’t need to market the Gospel. We need to preach it! James Montgomery Boice certainly had it right when he said, “The most important thing happening in the world at any given time is the preaching of the Gospel.” How presumptuous it is to think that an imperfect, sinful, human being could improve on God’s own method for bringing sinners to salvation!

A second great error of the Church Growth Movement is that it downgrades the position of the preacher. A preacher using Church Growth principles must find out what people want to hear and preach that if indeed he is allowed to preach at all. He thus becomes, in effect, simply a people pleaser, and before he realizes it, he is put in the degrading position of having to tell people what they want to hear if he wants to keep his job.

Another great error of Church Growth thinking is that it disparages doctrine. It lowers doctrine in people’s estimation by its teachings and its actions. In this thinking, modern business principles are more important than Bible doctrine. Doctrine is even seen as detrimental to church growth. Preaching sound doctrine is seen by these people as a thing of the past. This thinking, however, is utterly and obviously contrary to God’s Word in such passages as Acts 2:42 which speaks of the early church when it says, “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” And II Timothy 4:2 where Paul tells the preacher Timothy to “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine.”

The Church Growth Movement is also in error because it forgets the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners. Church Growth people act as if everything depends on clever marketing techniques when in reality everything depends on the sovereign, all-powerful God. They rely on man-centered methods for reaching people rather than on the power of God’s Word and God’s Holy Spirit. But to think that human methods can bring sinners to Christ is to deny God’s sovereign grace. The Lord Jesus says in John 6:44, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him…” John 15:5 says that apart from Christ we can do nothing and II Corinthians 10:4 says, “(For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;)” If God does the saving, we cannot and must not resort to methods that make it appear that we do. God’s Word says in Acts 2:47 that the Lord adds to His church. The sovereign Christ will add to His churches as He sees fit. The Lord Jesus Christ said in Matthew 16:18 that He would build His church. The early churches which turned the world upside down did not have a marketing strategy!

Listen! The whole idea of lost people in the community being “seekers” is unscriptural in light of Romans 3:11 where Paul says, “there is none that seeketh after God.” Methods cannot convert sinners. Only the Holy Spirit can do so through the preaching of God’s Word. Romans 10:14 says, “How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?” Conversion is wholly a work of God’s grace. Who are we to think that our methods can convert even one soul?

A fifth great error of Church Growth thinking is the fact that it denies the sufficiency of God’s Word. To speak of the sufficiency of God’s Word is to speak of the fact that God’s Word gives us all that we need, every possible motive and method and empowerment for doing God’s work. II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us clearly that God’s Word is sufficient for doing God’s work. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness that the man of God may be perfect (or complete) throughly furnished (or equipped) unto all (every possible) good works.” Church Growth preachers are committed to clever programming rather then to the rather than to the Word of God. “Will it work?” is more important to them than “What does God’s Word teach?” Oh, how our churches need to realize once again that the Gospel of Jesus Christ really is the power of God unto salvation!

The last great error of Church Growth thinking that we want to note here is the fact that it brings the world into the church. First of all the world sets the agenda for the church in Church Growth thinking because these people find out what the world wants in the church and then seek to give it to them. Secondly, almost everything in Church Growth thinking mirrors the entertainment industry. They have stages, not platforms and pulpits. They have music as entertainment with applause. They have theatrical lighting and sound systems. Their services can rightly be classed as worldly entertainment instead of spiritual worship. Someone else has said that the new style of worship in the Church Growth churches resembles MTV more than the old time religion. God’s Word in Romans 12:2 tells us the proper relation of the church to the world when it says, “…be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”


“Don’t you believe in church growth?” they often ask those of us who disagree with their thinking. We certainly do and we want to see our church grow, but we remember that it is Christ who builds His churches, not we and if the Holy Spirit cannot produce growth in our church then we don’t want growth! My own prayer is that someday God will see fit to move mightily on our congregation so that people will know that the salvation of sinners does not come through clever and innovative methods nor Church Growth principles, but by the sovereign grace of our all-glorious Christ!