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The Present Future: Church Growth to Kingdom Growth

Reggie McNeal’s The Present Future offers six new realities that the church must face. Today we move to new reality number two: “the shift from church growth to kingdom growth.” In light of this new reality, the church must move from asking the wrong question to asking the tough question. But first, some background.

As in every chapter, McNeal discusses the wrong question to ask in light of this new reality and proposes a tough question that should be asked in light of this new reality. But before we get to the wrong question, McNeal provides a nice summary of the church growth movement. Here are some highlights:

“The church growth movement exploded on the scene in the 1970s. It emerged from the teachings of Donald McGarvan of Fuller seminary, who brought his insights gained as a missionary to the North American church. McGarvan argued that God intends his church to grow…The church growth movement was a missiological response to the initial warning signs that the church in North America had lost its mission.

“Following the lead of the Charles E. Fuller Institute of Evangelism and Church Growth, church growth seminars popped up all over the country. Seminaries put church growth courses into their curriculum…The result is that literally thousands of church leaders have been trained or heavily influenced by the impact of the church growth movement.

“Certain tenets of church growth methodology met a fair amount of resistance from church leaders. One was the principle of homogeneity espoused by McGarvan, taht people want to go to church with people who are basically are like them…Church growth advocates argued that growth was a sign of life and was anticipated and even expected by God.”

With this background in mind, McNeal lists several positive aspects of the church growth movement, including 1) waking up the church, 2) get the church thinking missiologically, 3) pushing for cultural relevance, and 4) opening up the church to learn from other disciplines. McNeal also lists several negative aspects of the church growth movement, including 1) “growth” ended up being movement from one church to another, 2) some CEO-brand leadership emphasized power and privilege, 3) the development of bad methodology simply to increase the numbers, and 4) the rise of “celebrity” leaders and churches.

McNeal’s ultimate conclusion on the church growth movement is that it was “a transition in the North American church between the old church culture and the emerging culture. It introduced a concern for growth and a missiological approach to church. Unfortunately, it fell victim to an idolatry as old as the Tower of Babel, the belief that we are the architects of the work of God. As a result we can have the best churches men can build, but are still waiting for the church that only God can get credit for.”

At this point I want to expand the discussion beyond McNeal’s book. Specifically, what does this background teach us about the current missional and emerging church movements?

A lot of great blogs have described the relationship between missional and emerging church movements, For example, Dave Dunbar of Biblical Seminary has a good series going (part A and part B). Reclaiming the Mind has a nice four-part series. I have attempted my own summary, but it isn’t nearly as good as the other two.

Let me make a generalization that some may challenge. The church growth movement and emerging church movements are built primarily upon methodology. Of course both challenged the prevailing theology of the day, but both movements are methodologically driven. Specifically, they are driven by a methodology that seeks “relevance” with the existing cultural trends of the day. This is something that many within the emerging church movement would deny, but I believe it is pretty easy to document otherwise (I have done so in several posts on: practical ecclesiology, leadership, preaching and teaching, evangelism, worship, and the all-important summary). There is no question that both of these movements have left their mark and changed the course of North American evangelicalism. I think both have made many positive contributions. But, in my opinion, both of these movements will be replaced by another that proposes to correct the inherent weaknesses of their methodology.

But what about missional church? I personally think that the missional church movement is different. It is different because it is built primarily on theology. It does not propose a new methodology but an entirely renewed way of thinking about God and the church (I say renewed because the theology is really “new”). My Co-Pastors may accuse me of having drunk the “missional kool-aid,” but consider the following:

  • The foundation of the missional church movement is the 1998 publication of Darrell Guder et al’s Missional Church. When you read this book you notice the stark contrast between it and the popular publications from the church growth and emerging church movement. Missional Church is theological at its core. It offers cultural analysis and implications for the contemporary church, but no specific “do this” methodologies.
  • Other missional church publications are similar (see Alan Roxburgh’s The Missional Leader, Darrell Guder’s The Continuing Conversion of the Church, and Craig Van Gelder’s Confident Witness-Changing World, just to name a few).
  • Finally, how many names in the above lists did you recognize? What do you know about their churches? With all due respect to these fine men, they do not have exploding megachurches or supercool emerging churches. Most of them are academics! Why is this significant? It supports the conclusion that missional church is a theologically driven movement and not a methodologically driven movement.

As expected, the missional church movement has created a “second-generation” of missional church leaders that are attempting to help churches implement this theology (see Alan Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways, Michael Frost’s Exiles, Ed Stetzer’s Breaking the Missional Code, and Reggie McNeal’s many books). However, all of these books are grounded in missional theology and provide “principles” to be uniquely applied in a church’s context rather than “how to” methodologies.

Because the missional church is grounded on theology and not methodology, I believe it is the real deal.

Well, I have strayed pretty far from McNeal’s book. I’ll get to the wrong question soon.


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