The demise of the Church Growth model

September 5th, 2018
This article is featured in the Fall 2018 issue of HeartBursts

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends.


Leadership models come and go; this is true in all sectors. Anyone who follows business management, for example, can see enormous shifts in corporate leadership philosophies just by the books you buy at the airport. This is especially true for sectors that are sensitive to cultural shifts like politics and religion. I think church leadership models also have a limited “shelf life” and should be labeled with a “best before” date. For example:

  • The “Great Preacher” leadership model should have the label: Best Before 1965. That was the year all denominations started chronic and accelerating membership declines. The “Great Preacher” model was all about crafted sermons and persuasive pulpits. It was quite successful through the first half of the 20th century, and then came television and the image-rich world.
  • The “Therapeutic Caregiver” leadership model should have the label: Best Before 1985. That was the decade when clergy scandals started getting public attention and litigation against churches accelerated. The “Therapeutic Caregiver” model was about pastoral care and counseling and the psychologizing of faith, and was quite successful for 15-20 years. Then came the internet and the self-help world.
  • The “Social Crusader” leadership model should have the label: Best Before 2001. The new millennium has seen violence increase, natural disasters multiply, denominational subsidies shrink, and political polarization blamed on Christianity. The “Social Crusader” model was about advocacy and radical social service, and was quite successful for a time. Then came social media and the rise of personal religion.

These leadership models continue to be taught and practiced, of course, but they are valued by a decreasing number of lifestyle groups. Church leadership models are rarely removed from the shelves entirely; instead they’re shifted to the speciality or seasonal food aisles.

The “Church Growth” leadership model has filled the shelves of modern culture for about thirty years. It emerged in the 1990’s as a maverick and often maligned alternative to the previous models. By 2000, however, it had become increasingly normative for church expectations and as the career advancement path for most clergy. Unfortunately, like all leadership models, it has a shelf life. It should be packaged with a label: Best Before 2025. In about seven years, it will start to become increasingly stale; it is already being shifted to the sidelines. 

The “Church Growth” leadership model is a blend of what I describe as the CEO-Discipler identities for spiritual leadership (see Spiritual Leadership: Why Leaders Lead and Who Seekers Follow). It is usually associated with “organic” churches (mega- and multi-site churches and church plants). These are churches that measure success in “multiplying disciples who multiply more disciples.” The metrics are wide audiences and membership growth; local, regional, and/or global community dominance; political influence and denominational presence; and capital pools and expansive generosity.

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In the beginning (i.e.1990’s) the “Church Growth” leadership model was refreshing. Clergy who were physically exhausted struggling to attract members and money so that the institution could survive; emotionally exhausted trying to keep up with the neediness of individuals clamoring for personal attention; and politically exhausted trying to patch together donor networks to support controversial causes and fragile non-profits welcomed a leadership model that helped them be more effective and feel more faithful. It was all about seeker sensibility and faith formation, shaping a lifestyle and customizing a spiritual practice, communing with God and being a good neighbor. The model called for clergy to get out of the study, eliminate bureaucracy, overcome hypocrisy, and get real.

To do this, the “Church Growth” model expected the leader to:

  • Empathize with seekers who were used to customer service, and shape hospitality and style to keep their attention long enough to hear the message. Theoretically, this was not about dumbing down the Gospel, but about making the Gospel relevant.
  • Challenge the controllers who want to sidetrack the church, and rigorously align with a single purpose. Theoretically, this was not about insensitivity to the expectations of members, but about loyalty to the visions God reveals.
  • Eliminate committees that slowed down change, and dramatically increase the speed of decision-making. Theoretically, this was not about centralizing power, but about delegating responsibility and authority quickly and appropriately.
  • Transform the clergy from stodgy, professional experts, who understood the creed into approachable, likeable, role models who were good at listening and adapting. Theoretically, this was not about personality types but spiritual gifts.
  • Penetrate through abstractions and ambiguities to get to the secret spiritual knowledge that really mattered. Theoretically, this was not about following a guru, but about listening to someone with an intuitive methodology who skipped the necessity for study.

The goal was not just to grow more and more and still more disciples, but to replicate more and more and still more leaders. It worked well for a few decades. Some churches grew significantly, some even astronomically. It rejuvenated some denominations. As time went by, however, it appeared that 80% of the Christians were now concentrated in 20% of the churches — and the world is not that different.

The “Church Growth” leadership model proved difficult to imitate. Clergy tried and failed… relocated… tried and failed… and relocated again and again. As denominational expectations became greater, clergy self-esteem got smaller. There were a great many small and unsustainable churches, and all too few large and growing churches. The overweening confidence of a relatively few successful church growth leaders bordered on arrogance, and the underappreciated discouragement of a great many unsuccessful pastors bordered on despair.

The vulnerability of the “Church Growth” leadership model, like all past leadership models, is that church growth has less to do with leadership and more to do with culture. Sensitive, assertive, decisive, charismatic, and gnostic leaders grew churches, because culture wanted them. Culture once wanted great preachers and religious therapists, and voila! Preachers and therapists were successful, too. But what happens when culture no longer wants sensitive, assertive, decisive, charismatic, and gnostic leaders on a mission to multiply disciples who multiply more disciples?

I hear a note of desperation in the voices of Church Growth leaders today. Their preaching is more strident; their work ethic more obsessive; their fund raising more aggressive; their statistics more inflated. Culture is pressuring the theory of the sensitive, assertive, decisive, charismatic, and gnostic leader into something they never intended.

  • Seeker sensitivity is morphing into catered consumerism. Style is increasingly more important than content. The message is more about ideology than theology.
  • Pastors are forced to be the new controllers. Followers are less and less able – and unwilling - to distinguish between the leader’s goals and God’s vision.
  • Power becoming more centralized. Leaders delegate responsibility, but not authority, because followers want liberty without accountability.
  • Celebrity is becoming more important than credibility. Culture gravitates to personalities but is cynical about role models who have feet of clay.
  • Disciplers are becoming gurus, because culture does not want to explore profound mysteries; it wants to hear pat answers and demand guarantees.

I know that some “Church Growth” leaders will resent these suggestions, but many more are troubled by these trends. It’s not what they set out to do. I also know that some pastors who are trying to become “Church Growth” leaders will be alarmed by these suggestions because their careers depend on it. Still, many other pastors will be relieved to know they do not have to grow churches in order to be faithful. When leadership models fade, pastors rightly wonder What’s next? What is the emerging leadership model that will be effective and faithful among the cultures that are emerging in the next decades?

Whatever emerges will be a new paradigm that shatters our old conceptualizations. The model of disciple-making will no longer be based on the paradigm of Paul and his missionary journeys. It will be based on Phillip following a desert and encountering some Ethiopian on a spiritual pilgrimage. Here are some clues:

The very concept of “church leader” is changing. What is emerging is the “Christian influencer.” The “influencer” is emerging in the world of blogs, social media and “TED Talks,” one who focuses on mobility and migration, meaningless work, the impossibility of home ownership, and debt. The “Christian influencer” is a pilgrim and mentor, and casts a vision of hope that is far-reaching and all-inclusive.

This “Christian influencer” will be part of a non-institutional and apolitical movement. He or she will be called to a second vocation expressed in or alongside another career, unpaid although not unrewarded. Their credibility will not come from a certification, but a lifestyle that is both sacramental and pragmatic, open to mystery and living simply, modeling the fruits of the Spirit as the way of Christ.

The disciple-making process will not be a timely program managed by a pastor, but a timeless process that is motivated and guided by the Holy Spirit. A “Christian influencer” is just one wave in the global current of God’s movement. Leaders don’t make disciples. The Holy Spirit makes disciples, and the “Christian Influencer” will use spiritual disciplines to get caught up in a Kairos moment.

The “Church Growth” leadership model will not completely disappear, but it will go the way of all other church leadership models that preceded it. The paradigm for Christian leadership in the emerging world will not be Peter preaching, or Thomas doubting, or even Paul exhorting the faithful. It will be Phillip mentoring and believing, here today and gone tomorrow, whisked away by the Holy Spirit and ready to do it again in another context, at another Kairos moment, with another spiritual traveler.

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