What is “The Church Growth Movement”? (And What Effects Does it Have On Your Church?)

See if you can identify with this man’s story below regarding his friend’s church:

“A friend recently read me a letter from a prominent Texas church that had just planted a satellite campus in Florida. The letter was addressed to pastors, and described the church’s strategy for getting Floridians to the new campus. Their approach? Direct mailings, free giveaways, good parking, friendly waving greeters, gourmet coffee, nicely polished wood tables, and excellent signage.

The writer was enthusiastic, even giddy, to be sharing his church’s experience as an encouragement to other pastors who longed to see their own churches succeed.

Yet that’s all he said. Not a word regarding teaching, prayer, or holiness in the lives of church members. Knowing what your consumers wanted was the first step, and finding the techniques to meet their desires was the second. Welcome to what many call the outcome of the Church Growth movement! [Billy’s bold]” (Source).


What’s the problem with the church’s approach above? The approach is based more upon corporate business practices than upon scripture.   Thus, the subtle influence of CGM.

Here are some characteristics of CGM that can better help us to define this movement:

“The Church Growth idea is that we must study man (using the latest sociological, psychological, and anthropological insights) to determine how to create a church that will grow and a message that will be popular through appealing to a target audience” (Source).

Notice that the focus is on studying man and on the message being “appealing” & “popular.”  It has been said before that if you are going in a straight line and only alter your direction by 1 degree, then the farther you go, the greater the distance will grow from the original straight line had you remained on it.  When you begin your church methodology (the way you do church) with man rather than God, then we are sure to veer off into areas and methods that are far from what God would want of us and for us.  Every piece of fruit that is on the tree eventually sprang from the root where it began.

Notice that the words “appealing” and “popular” are used to describe churches that hold to CGM. Was Jesus’ message “appealing and popular”? Did an “appealing and popular” message get Jesus crucified? Jesus was eventually crucified for preaching a very unappealing and unpopular message, especially among the religious and political leaders of His day.  Also, was the apostles’ message in the early church “appealing and popular”? History shows that a majority of Christ’s original disciples were martyred for their faith. Does martyredom result from an “appealing and popular” message?  Would Jesus and/or His disciples’ message be tolerated in many churches today that desire to preach an “appealing and popular” message? Unfortunately, given the pressure put on ministers and churches that either hold to, or are unwittingly driven by, CGM philosophy, there is an unbiblical drive to preach a message that’s “appealing and popular,” just to get anyone through the doors of the church. Again, when you start with man and what he wants, instead of what God says, you are bound to go down an unbiblical path in the way you do church. 


Many in the church today are unaware that many of the methods and programs and mindsets that we use in our churches have found themselves rooted in a movement called “The Church Growth Movement” (CGM).  I heard a saying years ago that applies to this topic: “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s gold and just because it’s new doesn’t mean it’s true.

What may be shocking to many in the church is that the modern concept of CGM that drives the practice of many of our churches is fairly recent (starting with Donald McGavern’s book, The Bridges of God,” published in 1955). What we have, then, is basically a relatively new theory based on this “Church Growth Model,” that many within the church are using (unknowingly) to believe and practice instead of the wisdom and truth found in Scripture.  Understand that there is a distinction between simply growing your church and CGM (I’m indebted to Ed Stetzer for that distinction).  If you want to learn more about the history and critiques of the modern CGM, you can check here (definition at Wikipedia), here, (Os Guinness’ critique) here (Google Search “Church Growth Critique”), and here  (John MacArthur’s “A Biblical Response to the Church Growth Movement”).


There is, however, more going on here with CGM than just adding padded seats, a screen, or a coffee center (all of which I use and enjoy!). What we have here in CGM is a pragmatic view of running a church (doing “what works” and what yield’s “the most bang for our buck”) rather than what I’m going to call a “faithfulness view” that’s concerned with being faithful to what God has called a church, and a minister, to be and to do. The pragmatic view of doing church is more akin to modern business principles than to the principles of Scripture (Source). The pragmatic view asks church members or prospective church members, “What can we do to meet your needs?” while the faithfulness view asks, “How can we be more faithful to God in our services?” One is more man-centered, and the other is more God-centered.  I don’t think there’s anyone in ministry or any faithful church member that would say, “Yeah, I want our church to be more man-centered than God-centered,” yet we often seem to tailor our churches towards pleasing people, which is not always pleasing to God. The pragmatic view takes a survey and asks its members what they would want in a church while the faithfulness view goes to Scripture to see what God would want in a church.


Are we to never listen to what other people are saying regarding our services or our church programs? Certainly not. If we are not open to correction and rebuke, then that is sin. Are we to throw out the sound system and the screen on the wall because it’s using “the culture” to reach others?  I don’t think so.  Are we to suddenly tear down that coffee shop-type-of-room/area in the church lobby since it’s an “unbiblical outreach tool”? Again, I don’t think so. I believe that the problem comes when we depend upon these various “bells and whistles” and “extras” to grow and sustain our church rather than upon the preaching of the Word of God, the Holy Spirit, prayer, and a people seeking holiness before the Lord and engaging with humility and love with those within and outside the congregation. I think that it’s the emphasis on, rather than the mere existence of, these other methods that cause us to go into territory that lends itself towards a man-centered ecclesiology (Theology of What the Church is and Why it Exists, etc.) rather than a God-centered one. We must be sure and diligent to not neglect the God-given means to grow and sustain a church over the means that man has given to us.

Keep your eyes open on the blog as  I’ll have more to say in future posts regarding this errant CGM philosophy that has invaded many of our churches in North America.


1. What are your thoughts of the “Church-Growth-Movement” as it has been described above? Were you even aware of its influence upon many of our churches today?

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