During that time, I also visited a ton of churches. The homogeneous unit principle was in full force. Church marketing was taking off. I remember one church who tried to set itself apart by saying they were "innovative."
A few years later, I finished my masters degree at Regent College—in Vancouver, Canada—and while there I took a class with Eugene Peterson. Again I was in awe of his poetic prowess, his way of turning a phrase, and the fact that he had been a pastor for 30 years. He shared in one class about his concerns about church growth thinking. He told us that he did not want to pastor a church where he could not know everyone's name.
Two of the wisest pastor's of the last 50 years. From one I was introduced to church growth theory. From the other, I learned to question it.
That was the 1990s. Today the conversation has shifted away from church growth theories to "missional." However, church growth thinking has not gone away. There is an ongoing—though often unrecognized—conversation going on between church growth thinking and missional thinking. IN fact, the relationship between the missional church and church growth reflects tension I experienced with my two professors.
Let me explain.
Many actually come very close to equating missional with church growth. Recently I read a book on church staffing which basically laid out a plan for developing a "missional" staff, but the premise of the book was squarely shaped by church growth presuppositions. In other words, God's mission in the world is to grow the local church numerically. As the church grows with new converts, then God's mission is accomplished. If you staff your church according to the advice they give, your church will grow and you will accomplish God's mission.
On the other side, there are 'missional' voices who challenge this mindset. They focus not on getting people involved in the church organization but on mobilizing God's people for mission in the world. They are not as concerned about evangelism and the growth of the local church as they are about the redemptive life of God in daily life.
Often the two side lob polemical arguments against one another. The church growth guys assume that the missional peeps don't care about evangelism and enfolding people into the church. And the missional guys assume that the church growth mindset only cares about building big churches.
Could it be that both Calvin Miller and Eugene Peterson both had something to contribute to my understanding back in the 1990s? And could it be that both church growth view of missional and the anti-church growth view of missional have something to contribute to the conversation today?
I've sat on both sides of the conversation through the years. As I reflect on my journey here's what I'd say to myself.
To My Church Growth Way of Thinking:
- Don't limit God's mission to the numerical growth of your church. God's mission extends beyond growing the church. And it is far bigger than your church.
- The focus must lie on participating with God in what God is doing in the world, not on you following the right kind of formula to grow your church. This is God's thing. Slow down and follow God's rhythms. You might be able to produce results by working harder and longer, but God has called you to himself first and foremost. Participate in God and God's mission will flow out of that.
- Raise the bar of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Don't make salvation about praying a prayer so people can go to heaven when they die.
To My Missional Way of Thinking:
- People need to hear about Jesus and to have an opportunity to enter into life with Him. Don't shy away from giving people the opportunity to enter the Kingdom.
- Gathering people in large groups is not necessarily a bad thing. Don't be growth resistant just because you see weaknesses in the church growth patterns. God wants all to be saved which would mean that growth would be the natural result. You just might have to figure out new ways to grow.
- Don't discount the church growth teachers just because you disagree with them. You might see things differently, but they did not get everything wrong. As if you've gotten it all right.