The Christian Standard offered a set of articles/reports “How Churches Grow” in its latest online edition. See it here. I found it interesting that two of the four featured churches are led by Nebraska Christian College graduates, Scott Beckenhauer and Bryan Myers. This is doubly interesting to me because Scott is the lead minister at my home church, Calvary Christian Church in Bellevue, NE. The article about Calvary, “One Life at a Time,” can be seen here.
I have been following the ups and downs of the church growth movement and its practices for four decades now. There have been good things and bad things that have emerged. Let me mention some of the things that happened that seem unwise to me now, things I actively participated in and yet now judge with my perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight.
First was a push in the 1980s to have the church become some sort of a marketing business. In this model, the minister was a CEO, the church was his business, dedicated members were his sales staff, and visitors were customers. Everything on Sunday morning was based on appeal to the newcomers who might show up each week.
A second, related, way in which this came out was through the emphasis upon “seeker sensitive” worship services, a technique that was particularly popular in the 1990s. It was the church as marketing business redux, with almost every aspect of the church’s ministry aimed at the “seekers” out there, spiritual people who had not embraced Christianity or a particular congregation.
A third realization is that a lot of church “growth” was reshuffling of church folks. This fed the consumer mentality of Americans: doing church better than anyone would cause believers to flock to a growing church and leave the lesser, dysfunctional churches of their past. It was somewhat rare to find a growing church that was actually growing through conversion of non-believers.
There are other things that have come and gone, but the some of the core values of the church growth movement still hold. One of these is that Christ intended his church to grow, because this growth was the working out of his command to go worldwide and make disciples. Second, the church growth folks pushed us to start new churches, understanding that many older churches were mired in infighting and had lost evangelistic focus, and that growing communities always needed new churches. I think both of these are very good things.
It has been interesting for me to engage with Rory Noland, a new faculty person for Nebraska Christian College, on these issues a little. Rory was the music director for Willow Creek Community Church in Chicagoland for many years, and was right in the middle of the “seeker” approach. He notes that Willow had moved away from this some years ago. (See this 2008 article from Christianity Today.) Rory sort of assumes that wise churches will have followed Willow’s lead in abandoning and/or de-emphasizing this approach, since the church that pioneered it has done so, but I don’t think that is the case. The “seeker sensitive” model has left a lasting imprint on many Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, my tribe, and some still see this as a desirable way to achieve that elusive status of being a growing church.
Calvary Christian Church has grown for several reasons. Scott Beckenhauer is a gifted preacher and brings worthwhile things to the congregation every week he preaches. The repurposing of facilities has given a more contemporary feel that seems to work well. The worship music is excellent, led by another couple of Nebraska Christian College graduates, Drew Scates and Jeremy Lalk. There is constant and consistent outreach into the community, making Calvary known as an active, caring church. There is a vibrant small group ministry. Perhaps the most important thing is Calvary’s emphasis, led by Scott, on a “One Life” ministry. It is not so much about numbers, but about each individual life. Each life is important, because each life is a child of God created in the image of God.
And maybe that is where church growth initiatives must go. Church growth is about numbers only insomuch as numbers are made up of individuals. Community outreach is care for the people in the community. Focus is outward, not inward. Resources such as buildings are to be used, not guarded or hoarded. Church music touches the heart and uplifts the soul, not impresses the spectator. Church members are looking not so much to be led, but to participate. I think this is the church of the future, a church the millennial generation wants and will support.
Nebraska Christian College